A fashion designer/environmentalist returned to San Quentin in order to include the prison’s incarcerated population in the design of a gigantic flag to be displayed at the United Nations.
“I’m extremely honored to be on these grounds of San Quentin,” said Runa Ray at the Aug. 15 event aimed at bringing attention to climate change, justice and peace. “I’ve met some incredibly talented artists with stories.”
About a dozen incarcerated men gathered in a bungalow on the prison’s Lower Yard to write messages and draw patterns on 12”x12” recycled blue shirts. The individual squares will be combined with different designs made in 193 countries to create the peace flag.
The flag has so far gathered over 6,000 submissions — from incarcerated people, students, refugees, terminally ill patients and artists who endorse a just and equitable world.
Ray created “The Peace Flag Project” though the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals as a way to combat the harmful effect that fashion has on the environment and to ease climate change.
“The plan at San Quentin is to get some incarcerated voices in the goal for peace, as we all want to have peace,” said Carol Newborg, who escorted Ray into the prison.
Newborg is a Prison Arts project manager for the William James Association, a nonprofit that supports arts in corrections.
“I think that we should have more workshops that are random,” Newborg said. “They’re so peaceful.”
On a 12”x12” square, Robert Kuikahi, 44 wrote, “Breathe.” Underneath it, he drew a smiling angel-like figure.
“I chose ‘Breathe’ because it’s something positive,” Kuikahi said. “If everyone just took a second and breathed, the world would be a better place — peaceful and not so chaotic.”
Kuikahi sat at a table with three other incarcerated men, each working on a pattern.
Freddy Huante, 30, is 11 years into serving a life sentence. He drew a wooden arched door with words and phases written all around it.
“I created this door because lots of people think that people who have a life sentence has the door shut on them. And, sometimes, I feel like I have the door shut on me,” Huante said. “But, there’s a key in the door and the door’s never closed as long as we have hope — hope at finding the key.”
Jeff Isom, 58, wrote, “No more cruel and unusual punishment in prisons” on the square.
“I did that because of the current situation here; there’s cruel and unusual punishment on so many levels, like because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Isom said. “On top of that, it’s the mental part where we’re locked down for a long time with no program.”
Ruben Martinez, 44, drew a globe with “Peace” written below it.
“I wanted people to get the message right away and get what I was trying to say with the art without explaining it,” Martinez said. “So, the globe on top and graffiti look gives it a kind of urban-style look — even people in the hood want world peace.”
Ray said that the incarcerated men she talked to were transparent about “their past, without hiding anything, and have made changes in the present.”
While observing the artists, Ray added, “I’m honored to be in the midst of humanity that is translated into world peace. It’s the voice of the unheard that the world can see.”
At dusk, the workshop participants completed their last brush strokes.
“Coming into San Quentin has helped me embrace life to the fullest and realize that we’re all human,” Ray said. “And, art is the only and the greatest equalizer.”