Lifelong friends Larry Owens and Donald Shakir use art to handle life after prison

This story ran in Black News & Voices with the National Association of Black Journalists online July 28, 2022

By Aileen Delgado

On May 24, 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that portions of specific jury instructions were unconstitutional and that individuals convicted in criminal cases before 1980 were entitled to new trials — altering the lives of two lifelong friends, Donald Shakir and Larry Owens.

At 19, Shakir shot and killed a local confectioner during a robbery in Baltimore city. At 20, Owens, Shakir’s childhood friend, shot and killed a dry cleaner during a robbery. Both were in search of money for drugs. Both were convicted of murder, and both received a life sentence.

Not only did Shakir and Owens grow up in the same Fairfield, Maryland, neighborhood, they shared a prison cell at the Maryland Metropolitan Transition Center, formerly known as the Maryland Penitentiary.

Because of the 2012 ruling, both were released from prison. Owens, now 70, spent nearly 44 years inside; Shakir, now 69, spent 41 years. Together, they dealt with feelings of grief, isolation, and hopelessness. Then and now, they use art to cope.

Studies show art therapy can alleviate anxiety and depression symptoms. A 2019 World Health Organization (WHO) report found that the arts, including painting and drawing, can even “prevent the onset of mental illness.”

“One of the worst things about being incarcerated was the loss of family members. I lost my mother, father, brothers, and one sister,” said Shakir. “And when I came home, my other two brothers passed away.

“While you're in prison, there's no closure … And it hurts, it really hurts.”

Prior to his incarceration, Shakir discovered his talent for singing. Quickly, his cellmates recognized his abilities.

Donald Shakir and Larry Owens at the Patapsco Flea Market in Balitmore.

In a 2021 review of over 300 studies that analyzed the use of music to support the treatment of serious mental illnesses, approximately 70 percent showed positive results. One of the main musical activities within the study included singing.

“I love to sing,” said Shakir, who now performs Motown covers .“The first time I was supposed to go on the stage and sing, I was terrified. Now I can't keep quiet. All I do is sing all day long. That's how a lot of people know me.”

He also began writing poems about his own personal losses and regrets and self-published a book, "Self Expressions."

Owens is a self-taught portraitist who now sells his work online as well as at the Patapsco Flea Market. While incarcerated, Owens developed his skills as a painter and eventually became a mentor for other prisoners. He now teaches an art class within his own community.

“I found out I could draw at 9 or 10 years old at trade school. But the reason I got into it was when I went to jail, really,” said Owens.

”It’s a release. It helps me release a lot of pent-up anger, whatever you want to call it. When I feel tense, and I need a way of releasing it, I start drawing.”

When they came home, both Shakir and Owens sought psychiatric help and counseling services in hopes of receiving the mental health support they often needed during their incarceration.

In a 2018 USA TODAY interview with Shakir, he shared that “everyone who comes out of prison needs therapy.”

Both are concerned about the mental health of children.

“The children in the streets right now, a lot of them are lost causes,” said Shakir. “But we have to learn how to engage the children in a variety of things ... We need to focus on that. And we need more support from community members.”

@youthcastmediagroup Donald Shakir, who spent more than 40 years in #prison, shares his poem, "Children of the Ghetto, as he stands on a #Baltimore street. #decriminalizementalillness #mentalillnessisnotacrime #dmci #poetry #prisonTikTok #foryou #fyp ♬ original sound - YouthcastMediaGroup