Prison Art Is Taking Off

Art programs for prisoners are becoming more and more common and their benefits are becoming clearer.
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"We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell." -- Pablo Picasso

Prison is not a creative place. They don't do feng shui there. The probationers I work with at the Cook County Jail talk about how difficult it is to survive the bullpen, when many in the jail are on the floor at the same time. Others talk about aggressive roommates and cramped and unsanitary living conditions. While a few of the people I work with have been to prison, most of the people have only spent a few weeks locked up at Cook County. They describe the hyper-vigilance required to survive there and not accidentally become a victim of violence.

I have been close with a few people who spent considerable time in jail and prison. Although some describe how they emerged with new hope and new missions, none of them romanticized their imprisonment. Some friends were given new practical skills, but their environments for the most part did not help them grow creatively or emotionally. One friend used his time in prison to reflect on the socioeconomic conditions that lead to high rates of incarceration and he wrote a book about it. But he cultivated this artistic skill himself; the prison was not in the business of helping him become creative.

In her groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes about how the one thing prisons do create is more inmates. She describes a National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which found that "The prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it." Her book details more fully just how that process occurs, and targets minorities. How can a prison that creates by destroying lives ever help an inmate become creative?

Yet art programs for prisoners are becoming more and more common and their benefits are becoming clearer. At the web site for Prison Art, you can buy art from prisoners from across the world. The Guardian ran a beautiful photo series this fall on death row inmates in Tennessee who are taking art classes with professors from a local college. One of the people in prison said in an interview that the projects prove inmates "are more than that five minutes of time in our lives where we messed up."

It should not be surprising that prisoners are interested in art. Many great artists have spent time in prison. Oscar Wilde spent time in prison, as did Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky's time in prison informed much of his later work. What may be surprising is that more prisons are adopting art therapy or creating time for artistic expression. With little helping to change the staggering rate of mental illness among incarcerated populations, prison officials may be realizing that art therapy can be used as a cost-efficient way to combat behavioral problems linked to mental illness. Art therapy has been proven effective at decreasing depression among prisoners, as well.

I am a part of a group of people with lived psychological experiences who are working on a U.S. edition of Asylum magazine that seeks creative works of art from people with knowledge of or experience in a jail, prison or mental health facility. The call for works can be found here. Given the context of the high rates of mental illness in prisons and jails, we are looking to start a dialogue about where mental illness fits into the renewed interest in prisoner art. If you know someone who is incarcerated who might be interested in contributing to this project, please let them know about this opportunity.

Foucault wrote that, "The freedom of madness can only be understood from the heights of the fortress which holds it prisoner." I believe he meant that madness can often be a reaction to an unforgiving rationalism, one that seeks to punish error instead of nourish it to change its direction. The increase in prison art projects is a positive development. One can only hope that as prison officials and politicians see creative value in prisoners, they can apply that creative perspective to the system itself.

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