Arts programming for former American prisoners is virtually non-existent. Here’s why that should change

Pablo Picasso said, “We artists are indestructible; even in a prison… I would be all-powerful in my own artistic world, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.

Today, this is a harsh reality for many incarcerated artists, who rely on the healing power of artistic creation during their sentence. Through art, incarcerated people build communities inside and outside prison walls. We have learned from artists impacted by the penal system and want to share some strategies we adopt to support them through our work at Silver Art Projects.

After spending more than 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Dean Gillispie, 46, was finally released from prison and into the arms of his parents three days before Christmas in 2011 thanks to the persistent efforts of the Ohio Innocence Project. Gillispie searched for ways to keep his mind and hands active while expressing suppressed emotions in prison, and he wasn’t the only one. Painting, drawing, dioramas, poetry and musical composition are all artistic expressions that can help free one’s soul and ease the harsh realities of prison life.

We first discovered Gillispie while reading Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Nicole R. Fleetwood. The book tells the stories of currently and formerly incarcerated artists and analyzes the centrality of incarceration to contemporary art and culture. More than 35 of these artists, including Gillispie, were featured in a memorable MoMA PS1 Exhibition of the same name, organized by Fleetwood, who have exposed the realities and impact of mass incarceration in the United States through their works.

Gillispie, who was arrested aged 26, was haunted by a punitive prison system. We are the same age as Gillispie when he was arrested, and comparing the obstacles he faced at 26 to our own obstacles is a deeply saddening exercise. Learning about his experiences through his works compelled us to learn about the crisis facing our country.

Since 1970, the prison population in the United States has increased by 500%, with more than two million people in prison and in prison today, far exceeding historical population growth and crime rates during the same period. . The crisis called mass incarceration is shorthand for the fact that the United States imprisons more people than any other country. In addition to the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States, several factors continue to reinforce the systemic crisis of mass incarceration, including over-policing in marginalized communities, long sentences for petty crimes and the endless restrictions faced by those who are eventually released, such as probation and parole. The impact of mass incarceration ripples through communities, burdening families with crippling debt, community disruption, stigma and shame, which are barriers to employment and quality of life.

There are many ways to support efforts against mass incarceration. Our goal is to explore existing models and emulate their success. Silver Art Projects is an art residency we co-founded in 2020 to support emerging artists from marginalized communities, especially artists from the LGBTQ, Black, Asian communities and artists with disabilities. Silver Art relies on a selection committee, which included Isolde Brielmeier, Hank Willis Thomas, Kimberly Drew, Tourmaline, Chella Man and Hall Rockefeller, who met last year to review nominations. Among those candidates was Jared Owens, a multidisciplinary artist whose practice focuses on raising awareness of the plight of nearly 2.5 million people entangled in the US prison state.

Federal prisons have arts programming, but most state prisons offer little or no arts programming. These programs are often the only opportunity for positive creation, and without them people are prevented from expressing their unique points of view. Incarceration isn’t meant to be fun, of course. While some argue that prison is intended as a form of punishment and that any positive program is a waste of taxpayers’ money, we share the idea that those imprisoned can learn new skills, helping them reintegrate into society once their sentence is over. Additionally, art programs are especially cathartic for those with severe mental illness.

Rehabilitation through the arts (RTA), another organization that helps incarcerated people develop essential life skills through the arts, models its approach to the justice system based on human dignity rather than punishment. Less than 5% of RTA members return to prison, while the national recidivism rate is 60%. Without these programs, talented artists like Jared Owens would not have developed the work that the art world now pays attention to.

Many people released from prison face additional challenges. For example, obtaining a job is much more difficult for previously incarcerated people due to barriers known as “collateral consequences”. This is why it is particularly important to support the works of former prisoners at the start of their careers. As a society, we are trying to be more responsive to marginalized communities, and incarcerated people are exactly that. Supporting their art is a great way to promote their voices, experiences, and perspectives as we try to address the inequalities the United States faces today.

We are delighted to partner with the Art for Justice Fund to integrate themes that address mass incarceration into Silver Art’s artist residency program, as well as to ensure that formerly incarcerated artists are represented in our future cohorts. . Similarly, Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig, artists themselves formerly incarcerated, are launching an artist residency called Right of return which focuses on housing formerly incarcerated artists.

We challenge you to ask yourself: do you know any artists who have been incarcerated or families affected by mass incarceration? Does your art collection include works by formerly incarcerated artists? Major collections, both historical and contemporary, represent works of art from marginalized communities, whether it’s Patrick Sun’s collection of LGBTQ artists from Asia, Los Angeles-based collector couple Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen which focus on artists of color, or from Marcelle Joseph’s collection reserved for women. artists in the UK.

With all the issues facing society today, there is a role thematic collecting can play, where collections can be built around causes we believe in. There is more room in the collections for artists who have come out of the penal system. We are asking for your help to support them by collecting their work and telling their stories.

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About Meredith Campagna

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