By Kyle Daniel-Bey

I’ve been interested in art my entire life. My love for drawing began as a child, when I took art classes in elementary school. Later, I was introduced and devoted myself to creative writing, poetry and spoken word. 

It wasn’t until my incarceration that art became a lifeline.

At the age of 17, I was convicted and sentenced to natural life in prison. Art became a release, an enjoyment, an avenue of communication and so much more. I was able to exercise many of my inner demons through the words of my pen, the lines of my pencil and the monotonous focus of making jewelry. 

I’d spent my earliest years with my parents and sisters, living in rural Vermont. When I was 11, my family returned to Detroit, Michigan to be closer to our extended family. Moving from a small town in Vermont to a big urban city was incredibly challenging. My clothes and social queues were all wrong and I struggled to fit in. 

By the time I got to high school, I started running with an older, more aggressive crowd. I got caught up with selling drugs and gangbanging. Those connections led me into a series of actions which ended in a homicide – something that I will always deeply regret. 

After years of turmoil in the courts, the United States Supreme Court made a ruling stating that sentencing a minor (a person under the age of 18) to a mandatory natural life sentence was unconstitutional. With this retroactive change in the law, I was resentenced and released after serving almost 25 years in prison. 

When others would ask me how I made it through over two decades of incarceration, I tell them about my art. That kept me going. Through my own initiative and programs like the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), I was able to channel my energies in a positive direction. I loved taking the creative writing, drama and drawing classes. These activities gave me a strong sense of purpose and an outlet for my emotions. While the incident that occurred in 1993 will always be a part of me, I knew it didn’t define who I am as a human being.

One of my favorite ways of expressing myself while in prison was making handmade cards. Using colored pencils, pens and paints, I made thousands of cards celebrating birthdays and anniversaries of my family and friends. And when others saw my work, they paid me to make cards for their loved ones as well.

I also became involved in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, and eventually joined the Steering Committee, better known as the Theory Group. This international organization employs trained instructors to create a productive dialogue between students attending college and students who are in prison. Classes are held in correctional settings, inviting  everyone to experience one another as equals. This program allowed me to share my poetry and other artistic talents from a different framework, which made me feel both valued and appreciated.

In the spring of 2019, after my release from incarceration, I was invited to join the Board of Directors of Youth Arts Alliance, which has provided over 8,000 of Michigan’s most vulnerable youth with healing-centered arts workshops since 2013. YAA invests in community centers, schools and juvenile justice settings across 5 Michigan counties; serving youth from 26 counties in the state. YAA offers children and adolescents the artistic tools and instruction needed for positive self-expression.

As the only former inmate on the Board of YAA, I believe that I’ve become a touchstone for the other board members and the organization’s leadership. My experiences bring a vital perspective on the criminal justice system and the work YAA does there. This helps us to create the programs that are needed to give teens a way to communicate their innermost feelings in a safe and supportive environment.

Youth Artist Hannah learns how to make pinhole photos using a paint can for a camera at a YAA event at Parkridge Community Center, October, 2019.

As a member and supporter of YAA I challenge all of us to continue helping young people reach into themselves and uncover some of their deepest traumas and exorcise them with art. To look at themselves and see the beauty, the strength and the talent that they have been blessed with and which only they can share with the world. Our efforts are rewarded with the knowledge that in providing a path to healing, we may also be providing a path to liberation. We must act consciously to create spaces and to transform places which have never been known for their healing potential, into centers of wellness, mindfulness, and compassionate forgiveness. 

This is our charge. This is the mantle which we chose to pick up and take upon ourselves. YAA is the vehicle that is allowing us to meet this challenge.

As for our clients, your only responsibility is to continue to look inside. Continue to examine your lives and find the beauty that needs to be shared with the world. It may not feel or seem beautiful as you are creating it, but in the end, it will exceed your wildest dreams. Your being a success, means that YAA’s vision and effort is justified and we can continue to help others.

Artist Bio: Kyle Daniel-Bey has recently completed his parole. While working full time as an Ironworker Apprentice, he is also attending Wayne County Community College to earn an Associate’s degree in Business Administration. Kyle is an author whose work has appeared in the book, “Turning Teaching Inside Out.”

Edited by Katherine Cammell and Deborah Hurwitz