Death row art

A critically acclaimed exhibition of a death row inmate’s life’s art has travelled from Arkansas to Temple Church. Samantha Knights explains Kenneth Reams’ journey

Kenneth Reams sits in a tiny room working on an installation in readiness for the opening of his art exhibition in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

He has had a difficult time getting materials – wholly reliant on donations of paper, pens and brushes and at the mercy of institutional regulations as to whether he is permitted access to them. At times paper has been withheld for being the wrong size, pencils for containing the wrong amount of lead and brushes the wrong length.

Reams is no ordinary artist but an inmate on death row in the state of Arkansas, USA and in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in a cell 6x9ft. He has been incarcerated in a maximum security facility since 1993 for a crime committed when he was 18 years of age. Against the odds he has managed to produce over 50 works of art – pencil drawings and acrylic paintings and over five installations including a model of gallows made from matchsticks, and a ball and chain.

An exhibition of his work opened to critical acclaim in Little Rock, Arkansas in November 2014. With the assistance of Amicus, a UK-based charity which helps provide representation for those facing the death penalty in the US, the exhibition has been brought to the UK. It opened to the public at Temple Church London on 30 November and will be on display until 23 February 2017, together with the work of French artist Isabelle Watson.

The images are striking and raw. There is an American flag where the red stripes are nooses, from one of which hangs a black man. There is a geometric painting with 11 large white circles and one black circle depicting the issue of racial discrimination in the selection of jurors in the US. There is a stylized colour painting of an electric chair with the words ‘Martha’ and date of 1899, a reference to the first woman to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State.

Reams is emphatic that the art is not about himself but about broader themes such as the history of death row in the US, failings in the American criminal justice system, racial bias and discrimination, and poverty. However, the art is absolutely and resolutely the product of someone who has lived and breathed this system since 1993, when he stood trial, and who has spent over 20 years self-educating. And it is no coincidence that Reams is a black man from a broken and poor family in a troubled town in the US: Pine Bluff, Arkansas, described in an article in 2013 as America’s most dangerous little town.

Reams’ story is a compelling one. His mother was 15 years of age when she gave birth and suffered mental health problems. His father refused to acknowledge Reams and his young mother struggled to bring him up. She met another man and had two other children. There was alcohol and substance abuse in the house. Reams had a talent for drawing but unfortunately it could not keep him from a descent into bad company. He left home when he was 13 years old and fell in with a group of older children who were offending on the streets of Pine Bluff. He had no parental control. In 1993, aged 18, he was arrested with a friend in connection with a hold-up at gun point at an ATM in which the victim was shot dead by a single bullet. Reams did not have the gun and did not pull the trigger. Both Reams and his co-defendant were offered a plea bargain: a life sentence without parole in exchange for a plea of not guilty. Reams has never denied his involvement but the fact that he did not pull the trigger was irrelevant to him being charged with felony murder. He stood trial, not considering that his role justified a life sentence let alone one of death, while his co-defendant accepted the deal.

Reams was sentenced to death by a jury with 11 white jurors and one black (three other black jurors having been struck off the jury without any reason having been given as is in principle permissible under the US system of jury selection), represented by an attorney who called no ballistic expert witness and made no investigation to present favourable mitigating evidence at sentencing. Despite a diagnosis of intellectual disability which would have precluded him from being sentenced to death in most states, he was given the ultimate penalty.

I first met Reams in 2000 during a four-month placement funded by a Pegasus Scholarship from Inner Temple. I was not long out of pupillage and working as an Amicus intern for one of Reams’ long-serving counsel, George Kendall, then counsel at the Legal Defense Fund in New York. I kept in touch with Reams, who would write simple but beautifully scripted letters to my chambers. He would sometimes send pencil drawings. He never asked but I would send him books from time to time.

In 2012 with the knowledge that he had acquired about the death penalty and criminal justice viewed through the prism of his own complex appeal, he started creating art sculptures, paintings and drawings. He hopes his work will make people think about capital punishment and solitary confinement.

Reams’s story is not unique; work that many UK lawyers do through Amicus makes a huge difference to people on death row today. Amicus, established in 1993, continues to send dedicated lawyers to work in the USA on cases that lack assistance and over 100 UK-based caseworkers (see ). ●

Further information

Who Lives, Who Decides, Who Dies, the exhibition of Reams’ work, will be open to the public at Temple Church until 23 February 2017

Contributor Samantha Knights, Matrix Chambers, who with Margot Ravenscroft, director of Amicus, brought the exhibition to the UK

 

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Samantha Knights

Samantha specialises in civil liberties, public law, commercial law, and arbitration at Matrix. In 2000 she was Amicus intern at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York.