Interview with Joe Williams
by Sarah Chacich
Over the past few months Joe Williams and I got to know each other. Through phone calls and emails we pieced together a conversation sharing his experience of how he ended up in Suffolk State prison in Virginia, and how he came to find art and creativity as an alternative to a lifestyle he already knew so well. Joe Williams is a contributor of artwork for the Die Jim Crow project.
Where are you incarcerated?
Suffolks 1 State prison in Virginia
Where are you originally from?
Portsmouth, Virginia, southeastern Virginia.
What was it like for you as a kid growing up in Virginia?
“...I was primarily home schooled- although a short period when I was in public school.. I was dealing with a strict Judeo- Christian (Baptist) religious upbringing.. I made attempts to connect with people in public school, was into skating, surfing and hanging out with friends in Portsmouth, Virginia- or Hampton Roads. I was always a good student, but also trying to find a different way to do things- and had problems with attendance.
How old were you when you first went into prison?
First time was a two year stretch- when I was 18-19 I can’t remember exactly- the second time was in my early 20’s- I’ve been in a really high level prison since 2003 partly due to earlier institutional violence.
Describe your life right before you initially went in?
Had a dual existence, I was a successful bartender and bar manager, but at the same time I was also committing a crime selling drugs, and using drugs. I’m a perfectionist so I was really successful in both industries, and always trying to move up in both.
Can we go back to what you were talking about earlier, and talk a little bit about your thoughts on the huge racial disparities in prison? (note the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world; the 2017 Federal Bureau of Prisons statistic shows the white population was 58.7 %, 37.7% blacks being housed in federal institutions in 2016. However black male prisoners represent 38% and 21% are Hispanic males at the state level. In 2016 The Sentencing Project, a non-profit advocating for criminal justice reform released a number of key findings highlighting some of these racial disparities, for example, in twelve states more than half the prison population is black, among other findings.
I really see it as a financial thing- a lot of it has to do with the fact that lots of black people who are in prison come from a less financially well off background – and don’t have the resources, the education etc to keep them out of prison- not as many white people have this situation and therefore not as many end up in prison-
When did you first go into prison?
2003- continuously a really high level prison due to some issue with violence really early on within the institution- related to me being white and also really young when I first got in-sometimes you have to prove yourself when you’re first in and also white since so much in the minority you’re sometime seen as weak
When are you finished with your sentence?
You must be excited-? What are some of the first things you want to do when you’re out?
To take a regular shower, without shower shoes, eat an actual meal with some kind of meat that’s not processed- I just want a beer and a steak, and a regular shower.
How did you get into art?
A couple years ago I got tired of being a criminal. In prison there are a lot of things you can get involved with but it’s just the same path to that lifestyle. I knew it would not work out well for me if I stayed on that path. I had always been into tattooing- and it became one of the other things I continued to do/ focus on while in prison as an alternative to the criminal lifestyle–
I’ve always felt censored in things I could learn or do or say so now that I have an artistic voice (maybe more of a whisper...) I try to challenge the idea of censoring ...on the basis of some ethereal concept of “decency.” I’m entirely self taught so I’m just finding my way as I go...I actually started drawing solely so that I could tattoo. I’ve always been fascinated with the way they look. I remember being 15 and working in a bar as a dishwasher and surprising everyone by walking up to this huge ex-con looking guy who was guzzling whiskey and striking up a conversation about his fading sleeves of prison ink. My curiosity overrode my better judgement, a lifelong theme for me. I never did any art before I was locked up.
I have come to a place where I’ve made a name for myself inside as a tattooist. I’m regarded as one of if not the best in this prison at the moment, but I don’t like those labels because art is so subjective. Plus, tattooing, or any art in a place like this where you are not allowed even basic art supplies and everything is contraband makes it less pure art and far more in the realm of artisan where there is so much crafting of supplies, tools, mediums, etc for tattooing or just for drawing. I just want to do my best and hopefully it will be appreciated and I can come up in the game and eventually have a real voice for my work.
**Another shout out to Fury Young of Die Jim Crow for your gracious support in coordinating this interview and making it happen. More of Joe Williams visual art can be seen at die artwork.com/joe-williams.