Is there any right more essential than our ability to imagine a better world? The First Amendment to the United States Constitution—which protects our freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—gives us the blueprint to do just that. These five freedoms, enshrined in those 45 words written in 1791, have guided our continuing journey to create that “more perfect union” the founders hoped future generations would develop.
The mission of the First Amendment Museum is to inspire us to “Live our Freedoms” by understanding and using our First Amendment rights to advance democracy so that all reap the benefits. Integral to the museum’s mission and vision is that the First Amendment applies to all Americans.
And yet, not every American has access to the five freedoms in the First Amendment. What we consider our innate rights, rights that many of us take for granted, are not as accessible to those currently incarcerated or to those who serve in the military. The protections of the First Amendment look, feel, and act differently for them. In one instance, those rights are forfeited voluntarily, and in the other, they are forfeited as punishment.
To further explore this, the First Amendment Museum (FAM) presented an opportunity for incarcerated Maine veterans to learn more about the First Amendment and create artwork that reflects their feelings, experiences, and perceptions of their personal freedoms in relation to both their incarceration and active duty. The finished artwork created by the residents is now part of FAM’s fall exhibition, First Freedoms in Captivity, which you can view in person at the museum, as well as virtually in an online exhibit.
To create the exhibition, First Amendment Museum staff held educational sessions with the veterans’ pod at the Maine State Prison in Warren and with veterans at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Staff presented an introduction to the First Amendment to the residents, from its history to its present-day interpretation, and all the maddening, complicated grey areas in between.
Our government curtails the First Amendment rights of both prisoners and soldiers when “compelling state interests” are at stake—oftentimes, matters related to security concerns that the courts usually defer to prison administrators and military authorities to define. For example, in the Parker v. Levy (1974) Supreme Court case, the court held that the Doctrine of Military Necessity overruled the individual rights of those serving, stating: “While the members of the military are not excluded from the protection granted by the First Amendment, the different character of the military community and of the military mission requires a different application of those protections. The fundamental necessity for obedience, and the consequent necessity for imposition of discipline, may render permissible within the military that which would be constitutionally impermissible outside it.” Similarly, Turner v. Safley (1987) is a precedent-setting Supreme Court case that helped define the constitutional rights of prison residents. In it, the court determined that restrictions on those rights were subject to a standard of review (known as the Turner Test), holding that “when a prison regulation impinges on inmates’ constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”
Residents also learned about other specific First Amendment cases, like Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Union (1977), in which prisoners’ freedoms of speech and assembly to promote and join a union were curtailed; Dettmer v. Landon (1986) in which a Wiccan prisoner was not allowed a knife to practice his religion—a denial of the free exercise clause of the freedom of religion; and the case of Dannie Martin, a prison resident who was punished for having articles he wrote published in outside magazines. They also learned about United States v. Howe (1967), in which 2nd Lieutenant Henry Howe was court-martialed for attending an anti-war protest.
Through these and other cases, residents learned about historical First Amendment experiences. Then the residents became the teachers and helped us understand their own experiences, both as veterans and as residents of the Maine prisons.
They were prompted with questions, such as:
- Can you illustrate how your freedoms have been affected while incarcerated versus when you were a veteran versus when you were a civilian?
- Can you illustrate how or if your First Amendment freedoms are still protected?
- What is it like having protected our freedoms at one point in your life and living as an incarcerated veteran now?
After the initial presentation, museum staff met with the veteran pod at the Maine State Prison twice more, both in-person and virtually. Residents discussed further questions they had about the First Amendment and had museum staff check in on their works in progress. FAM staff also orchestrated weekly meetings with residents at the Maine Correctional Center during the month of July and facilitated their art sessions.
FAM wanted the art created by the residents to be a true expression of their own feelings and experience, so the artistic direction the residents received was completely open-ended. After all, the point of this exhibition is to provide these incarcerated veterans a space to let their voices be heard by a wide audience, and to provoke those audiences to think more deeply about their own attitudes towards incarceration.
Neither of the staff members who went into the prisons had ever been in one previously. Before interacting with the residents, we underwent an intensive volunteer training program with the Maine Department of Corrections, and while learning about the prison system on paper was one thing, it was a wholly different experience to actually be in the prison itself.
Due to the negative stereotypes of prisons portrayed in the media, we felt a bit of trepidation when first going behind bars. The security measures taken to enter the prison as a volunteer had the slightest hint of restrictions on our freedoms—we couldn’t wear certain articles of clothing or bring items with us that were not pre-approved. As we went through a metal detector and left our IDs behind, we went through our own transformation from someone on the outside able to exercise all of our freedoms, to someone on the inside, muted and powerless to the larger system.
Inside, the residents were both eager to learn and be heard. While working with the residents at the Maine Correctional Center throughout July, we learned more about their experiences, families, and feelings about the First Amendment. At the Maine State Prison, they were proud to show off their Veterans Pod, where they’ve been working on creating beautiful, military-themed murals on the walls, and training puppies to become service dogs for disabled vets.
The artwork that came out of this project amplifies the voices of a usually silent population. We invite you to come to the First Amendment Museum to listen to their voices by viewing it.
The First Freedoms in Captivity exhibition opened on 8 September 2021 at the First Amendment Museum in Augusta, Maine. Learn more at www.firstamendmentmuseum.org
Deborah Williams, Manager of Outreach Engagement, First Amendment Museum
Image at top: Anonymous, Freedom Within, mixed media including paper and gum wrappers, 8 x 8 x 12 in., 2021.