In Jail, Studying Magic by Mail

In Prison, Learning Magic by Mail


A deck of playing cards lower from milk cartons. A wand made with medical tape. How a bunch of inmates realized “the magic of magic.”

When the magician Kris Nevling was launched from jail two years in the past, he had been incarcerated for many of his life.

What stored him sane, he stated, was working towards magic, principally card methods. He was bodily small and struggled with dependancy, however magic made him really feel valued and highly effective. “In jail everybody has a nickname,” he stated. “And mine was at all times Magic.”

Nevling, 43, in the end served 23 years in Pennsylvania on costs together with drug possession and theft.

He began studying magic at 16. On a weekly journey from the juvenile detention middle to the library, he discovered magic books and began writing letters to each magician he might discover listed within the Yellow Pages, asking for suggestions.

One of many magicians Nevling contacted was Joshua Jay. He wasn’t alone.

When Jay started writing a column for the now-defunct Magic journal in 2001, he didn’t anticipate his methods to finish up within the arms of jail inmates all over the world. Then the letters began to reach. There was a person serving life with out parole for homicide in California. An inmate in Georgia, one other in Australia. Their crimes diversified. He wrote again to all of them.

It made sense, Jay got here to understand, that individuals would flip to magic in moments of despair and isolation: “If there may be something lacking from a maximum-security jail, it’s marvel.”

Over time, a number of the inmates fashioned a neighborhood, exchanging letters with step-by-step diagrams of sleight-of-hand methods or suggestions for making props with restricted supplies.

One in all them is David Garza, who discovered Jay’s month-to-month journal column in 2008. Write in with questions, it stated on the backside, so Garza did.

On the time Garza, 52, was in an Ohio state jail, serving a part of what would in the end be a 14-year sentence on costs together with legal sexual conduct.

“I put myself within the scenario by my decisions, and it’s the results,” he stated in a phone interview. “One thing wanted to vary, as a result of I couldn’t imagine I acquired to the purpose the place I used to be really so egocentric, that I didn’t care about how I impacted another person’s life.”

A lot of a magician’s most elementary instruments — ribbons, knives, cash — aren’t accessible in jail. So Garza despatched Jay an inventory of permitted gadgets, together with toothbrushes, cigarettes, pencils, taking part in playing cards and plastic bottles. Jay designed methods that used these restricted supplies, and Garza started making his personal props, like balls and poker chips, from glue and bathroom paper.

He would dip bathroom paper in water, form it and let it dry fully — this took a few week — earlier than coating it in layers of glue, every of which additionally needed to dry earlier than the following layer may very well be utilized. He stated the props had been usually confiscated or destroyed by guards throughout routine searches, and he must begin once more.

To Garza, magic was a method of ordering time. After the primary week in jail, he stated, a query presents itself: “What do you do? And also you take a look at it like, ‘I’ve acquired two years, I’ve acquired 10 years, I’ve acquired the remainder of my life on this place. What am I going to do with my time?’” Some individuals pursue a G.E.D. He acquired into magic.

Earlier than his 2012 arrest, Robert J. Williams, 30, was greatest identified for consuming a light-weight bulb in beneath 34 seconds. If magic methods depend on making the not possible look actual, his stunts concerned doing actual issues that look not possible. Williams has eaten a watch (“it’s time consuming,” he joked), swallowed swords, breathed hearth and pierced elements of his physique (jaw, hand or bicep) with lengthy spokes.

The day after his 22nd birthday, Williams stated he was arrested after his 11th tried financial institution theft. He was incarcerated, first at Rikers Island after which the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, a minimum-security jail in upstate New York, earlier than being launched in 2014.

With out entry to props, Williams’s magic grew to become extra psychological, he stated, and extra inventive: He began specializing in acts like mind-reading and hypnosis. Typically he placed on an hourlong present with a single prop, like a pencil: “A pencil can stab one thing, a pencil can write, a pencil can vanish,” he stated in a phone interview.

Since not less than World Struggle I, hospitals have used magic for its documented therapeutic results. Applications throughout the legal justice system are rarer: Beginning in 2007, the Hocus Pocus Venture despatched magicians into juvenile detention facilities and hospitals in New York earlier than operating out of funds 10 years later.

It was organized by the Conjuring Arts Analysis Heart, whose director, William Kalush, stated this system confronted skepticism. He stated individuals would ask, “What do you train them, easy methods to escape from handcuffs?” However he added, “anyone who’s carried out something creatively understands the enjoyment of getting one thing that you simply’ve invented for your self.”

Rafiel Torre, 55, stated that in 2003, he was convicted of homicide and sentenced to life in jail with out the potential for parole, and he now has exhausted his appeals. With no entry to the web, he has gleaned most of his magic data from books, letters from Jay and different magicians, and no matter magic he might catch on TV.

Torre stated he sculpts his personal props out of sponges. For string, he pulls thread out of his underwear. Throughout stretches in solitary confinement, the place taking part in playing cards are forbidden, he discovered that he might style 4 makeshift playing cards from his day by day milk carton.

“Everyone desires to really feel like they matter. And in jail, most of us don’t,” stated Torre, now incarcerated on the Substance Abuse Remedy Facility and State Jail in Corcoran, Calif. With magic, he stated, “I can follow, and make my thoughts go someplace else. I get taken away for a minute.”

Magicians generally discuss in regards to the second proper after they pull off a trick, earlier than the rational thoughts units in, and the viewer is transported, briefly, out of actuality. “You make them for a number of seconds imagine you’re doing the not possible. And for me, for a magician, you see that look on their face — ” Torre paused. “I can’t equate it to anything.”

After Garza was launched from jail, he was astounded by how a lot simpler it was to get audiences to really feel that sense of awe. He didn’t have to beat the jail’s environment of worry, powerlessness, and suspicion. “They had been already open to it. And that blew my thoughts,” he stated.

Garza now works as an expert magician in Cleveland, although his regular gigs in bars and eating places have evaporated due to Covid-19.

In some methods, Garza stated, his work on the skin feels much less pressing than his performances in jail. “We’re deemed a inhabitants of individuals which might be so horrible, so low-worth that we aren’t allowed to be out on this planet.”

However having the ability to overcome that feeling even for a second, he stated, “That’s the magic of magic.”

Surfacing is a biweekly column that explores the intersection of artwork and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.

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