Death row inmates’ creativity unshackled

Carnegie Mellon alums work with death row inmates to create a moving book. (credit: Courtesy of Kristen Lukiewski) Carnegie Mellon alums work with death row inmates to create a moving book. (credit: Courtesy of Kristen Lukiewski)

Opportunity and freedom are taken away from death row prison inmates, but through Thirty-Four Kites, Kristen Lukiewski and Reina Takahashi, both Carnegie Mellon ’08 alumnae, give Pennsylvanian inmates a chance to express their creativity. The book is a combination of 34 pieces of art, poetry, and prose from prisoners on death row.

Working closely with these prisoners, Lukiewski and Takahashi were able to pick up different bits of information about their lives, including the lingo used. The word “kite,” for instance, is used to refer to the letters exchanged between prisoners. The inmates sent their kites out in the form of art, and despite limitations on size and color, Lukiewski and Takahashi wanted to include at least one piece from everyone who submitted, even though some submitted more than one. The book was published in May 2008 and gave everyone a chance to hear the silenced voices of the prisoners.

“I’ve always been taught to ‘write what you know,’ and I think that extends to write to who you know,” says Lukiewski. Since most of the pieces came from a prison in Waynesburg, a borough in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, the audience for this publication was extended to the whole Pittsburgh area. Originally, the audience was restricted to the students of Carnegie Mellon, but after completing the project, the authors realized that the scope of the book was much greater and extended far beyond the boundaries of just the university.

The funding for Thirty-Four Kites came from the Charles Dawe Publishing Award, which was created to help fund a unique publication created by a student. Lukiewski, affected by the murder of someone close to her, began to explore the idea that everyone has a nice side or a soft spot. With this in mind, she came up with the idea to work with prisoners and teamed up with Takahashi, who served as the editor and a partner in communication design.

The project adviser, creative writing professor Jane Bernstein, helped the authors get in touch with creative writing professor Jim Daniels and retired English professor Dave Demarest. Daniels and Demarest led Lukiewski and Takahashi to two prisoners, Mumia Abu Jamal and Robert “Sugar Bear” Lark, who helped them build the rest of their prisoner list.

The authors spoke with some of the inmates and built a more “earnest correspondence,” and then they began collecting the pieces that were going to be published. Almost all of the men they talked to were excited. When it comes to the prisoners and how they felt about contributing, Lukiewski said, “I really believe the book gave them an opportunity to feel valued, if only in some small way, and I think it made them happy, which is no small thing.” She feels that some people may have feelings of hatred toward Thirty-Four Kites because of the origin of its content, and that there would be a variety of reactions toward the death row prisoners who contributed their work.

In order to state her position, Lukiewski assures that “the goal of the book wasn’t to proclaim innocence, refute judgments and sentences, or to reject the government. You could say the goal was a lot more personal: we wanted to give some fellow human beings a voice. This book is just a small way of granting some men the freedom of speech, free of judgment.” Some of the pieces included in the book are religious, some about life in prison, some anxious, and some peaceful.

“In the end, I think Reina and I accomplished something really wonderful, and more than anything it convinces me to move on and begin another project,” Lukiewski said.