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Coalition merges art and activism for holiday message about mass incarceration

At a busy intersection in Baldwin Hills, artist Jasmine Nyende sat on a jail bed, with dolls tied to its posts.

The dolls represented "every member of my family who has slept in a prison bed," said Nyende, 24, who read poetry about the impact of the massive numbers of people in jails and prisons from her perch near Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards.

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Nyende was one of dozens of artists taking part in a Christmas Eve demonstration called #JailBedDrop, coordinated by Justice L.A., a coalition of more than 40 local activist organizations.

The group placed 50 beds in Baldwin Hills, Beverly Hills, Compton, Inglewood, Lancaster, Manhattan Beach, Palmdale, West Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and other locations to highlight inequities in the criminal justice system.

The coalition "activated artists and organizers so a larger discussion about mass incarceration in this city" could begin, said Justice L.A. co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who is also a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The demonstration was also meant to be a reminder to shoppers and residents that thousands of people will not spend the holidays with their loved ones, Cullors said.

Many homeless and mentally ill inmates "see this bed as their only bed," Nyende noted.

In September, the coalition's first act was placing 100 of the steel-frame jail bunks outside of the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration to protest a planned $2 billion jail expansion approved by the Board of Supervisors. Opponents contend the final price tag could reach $3.5 billion, which they say would be better invested in community services.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has argued that expanded jail facilities are needed to curtail overcrowding.

Chandra Anderson's bed for Justice L.A.'s #JailBedDrop focused on incarcerated women and the lack of adequate feminine hygiene products.
Chandra Anderson's bed for Justice L.A.'s #JailBedDrop focused on incarcerated women and the lack of adequate feminine hygiene products. (Chanda Anderson)

For the most recent project, Justice L.A. selected artists to curate a bed and design a message focusing on a topic related to the criminal justice system or to incarcerated individuals.

"For some of us, like communities in Crenshaw, we know about the issues of mass incarceration," Cullors said. "Communities like Calabasas and Agoura Hills, it's different but we're also trying to change those minds out there."

Some of the beds were removed by Christmas, while others, like the bed near the Walt Disney Concert Hall, remained on the sidewalk for several days.

Passerby Pierre Dufflot was taking photographs of the concert hall and observed the bed, remarking that it was "very small" and "didn't look comfortable."

Another man walking by said it "looked like something from a L.A. County jail."

Chandra Anderson's bed, at Melrose Avenue and Crescent Heights Boulevard, focused on the thousands of incarcerated women in the country.

Her bed's theme, designed with white cloth and mannequin hands dipped in red paint, accented the special challenges faced by female inmates.

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"Adequate feminine hygiene products are not always provided, and many times inmates make their own tampons," Anderson said.

"Property of Smith State Prison" and "Don't let me die in prison" were written on artist Ciara Green's bed as a homage to her brother, Dewey Green, who was sentenced to life without parole plus 40 years for a fatal car accident and is incarcerated at the Smith State Prison in Georgia.

Green said her brother pleaded his innocence throughout his trial, stating he suffered a seizure when his vehicle struck and killed a woman.

Her bed highlights "the harsh realities of being incarcerated," she said, for both the inmate and their families.

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