Robert Heist spent his creative energy this year making a memorial to murdered Tecumseh prison inmate Terry Berry. 

He started with a poem, "Breaking the Chains." 

" ... I wasn't Terry who probably thought it was just horseplay

until his vision narrowed to black

as he passed into unconsciousness.

I wasn't the murderer who said

"Yeah, I killed him. 

He wouldn't shut up."

I was just the person

who avoided talking to him,

who didn't make him feel accepted,

who didn't warn him to tone it down.

Could I have broken the chain of events that killed him? 

Could we have?

Could you?" 

He spent his creative energy making a frame of tiny beads for the poem, and a beaded crucifix necklace. And other bracelets and necklaces and colorful origami boxes to hold them.  

Then he invited other incarcerated artists to share their creations with the people who roam downtown streets on First Fridays, visiting galleries and experiencing the art of other creatives. 

For the incarcerated artists' display — titled "Art From The Inside" — Jonathon Buckley sent a small piece, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Crochets." Michael McKenzie did an oil painting drawing, "Just Beyond the Fence." Cory Russell used his skill as a tattoo artist to make graphic works.

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And Warren Wilson, one former cellmate of Terry Berry, submitted Zen mandalas, a way he coped after the 22-year-old's death in April 2017. Berry had been sent to prison for cashing a stolen check and was two days from a parole hearing when he was moved into restrictive housing, a doubled bunked confinement cell, with a convicted murderer. Patrick Schroeder strangled him to death because, he said, he was annoying and dirty.

Heist said he was in the last gallery that Berry was in before the young man was sent to "the hole." He was not the easiest person to get along with or to like. He was too loud. So Heist ignored him.

"I hope that the poem conveys the sense of guilt that I feel over not having reached out and tried to make him feel a little more accepted, and maybe tried to calm him down and quiet him down so that other people didn't run him off the gallery," he said.

In March, Heist starting talking to fellow inmates at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution about raising awareness about the crowded conditions through art.

The Department of Correctional Services reports that, overall, prisons were at 152% of design capacity in the fiscal year that ended June 30. The four largest — Lincoln Correctional Center, the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, the Nebraska State Penitentiary and Tecumseh — combined are designed for 2,146 inmates but have 3,371. 

Heist, speaking Wednesday night from his cell on a tablet that allows him to make phone calls, also wanted to raise awareness about the effects of the crowding. Five men have been killed at Tecumseh, beginning with the Mother's Day riot in May 2015.

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He has learned it's the little things people do for each other that can change lives, sometimes in significant ways, he said.

He found five inmates willing to submit some of their work, and an artist at Gallery Nine in the Lincoln Mission Arts Building who said she would display their work in her studio.

Geraldine Dobos, whose studio is on the second floor of the gallery, said the display will be up about a month, and can be seen after Friday by making arrangements with Dobos.

The viewer will be able to see, Dobos said, that there is a lot of emotion running through their art. 

"Just looking at the pieces that came out, I got a sense of (their) longing," she said. "I'm really thrilled that they're doing it because art and movement are great ways to heal from whatever is traumatizing you.

"I think that this is a first step. And it's also helping to make people more aware of the difficulty that people have when they're inside a facility and it's crowded ... and the effects of that overall."

Being in prison is not like a vacation, she said. It's difficult for the prisoners to get the services they need to be re-established in the community when they come out. 

"They can't move through the system the way the system was constructed to be moved through," she said. 

Proceeds from the sale of the art will go to the Peoples City Mission in Lincoln.

See the artwork:

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


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