The Lower Eastside Girls Club aims to educate future leaders, politicians and thinkers about their rights, social justice, and skills like podcasting and catering. So, when prison abolitionist and artist Jackie Sumell— a longtime friend of the Girls Club—unveiled her latest project, it seemed like a perfect fit for the organization’s rooftop garden.
The Solitary Garden, a permanent addition to the rooftop, is six feet by nine feet, the size of a solitary confinement prison cell. Sumell designed the faux cell in conjunction with people serving time in solitary confinement, some of whom are on death row. Alongside Rodricus Crawford, who was exonerated in 2016 after serving five years on death row in in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, Sumell is taking her work across the East Coast, educating people about social justice and mass incarceration.
“We did this in two parts, which was totally insane,” Erikka James, Director of Leadership & Global Initiatives at the Girls Club, said. “Day one, it’s raining, we’re pouring cement, mixing cement up here with the girls, setting the gate.” The cement wall, gate and inscription are uniform across every garden Sumell creates.
Day two saw the garden bed come together inside of the cell. “The outer portion of the bed is cotton, tobacco and sugar cane, a mix that [Sumell] makes,” James says. This thick mixture lays the groundwork for the toilet, desk, bed and sink—all of the things that can’t be moved in a prison cell. “The dirt, the soil on the inside is the small amount of space that these people have to move.”
At an event on September 21, guests planted flowers picked by incarcerated mothers, which will grow to fill the space with color and beauty. “The goal is to continue the conversation and to get people talking about prison reform and solitary confinement in particular,” James said. “There are so many issues also related to incarceration—it’s a financial issue, it’s a race issue, all of these things. I think creating conversation around these issues makes for better leaders, better thinkers, and avenues for change.”Essentially, James seeks to teach the young women she works with how to be active around these issues. “This project in particular was very emotional, I think, and just one example of how you can read about something, but building it yourself and doing that labor puts you in a whole different mindset.”
The girls who helped Sumell with her installation were members of the Girls’ Club GALA (Girls As Activists Leaders & Advocates) program, high school students who show exemplary leadership skills. “They’re our core group of high school students who organize and plan to go to the Women’s March, they’re organizing walkouts at their school, they did an all-youth panel for the Teen Vogue Summit last year,” James says.
The day after the Solitary Garden event, The Lower Eastside Girls Club got a treat: Colin Kaepernick, Carolina Panthers’ Eric Reid, radio and TV host Nessa, and Rosario Dawson surprised the girls with a visit for the former NFL quarterback’s third annual backpack giveaway. “I want you to feel confident, feel proud, feel strong in everything that you’re doing,” Kaepernick told the crowd. Wearing an “I Know My Rights” shirt, Kaepernick inspired the young women with a message of change and listened to them discuss their work as young activists.
While the event was kept relatively low-key, James shared her appreciation for the day. “It was a wonderful experience, with great back to school support for the girls.”
Correction: This post was revised because it misstated the title of the installment and misspelled Jackie Sumell’s name in one instance.