Teaching art isn’t for everyone, and teaching art to prison inmates probably appeals to an even more select group. “It took me three years to get used to walking through cell blocks without having butterflies in my stomach,” said Lynne Vantriglia, a Key West, Florida artist who has taught male and female inmates at prisons in Florida and South Carolina as a volunteer through an Art Behind Bars (http://www.prisonactivist.org/resources/art-behind-bars-inc) program she founded in 1994. Her reaction is not atypical. Penitentiaries are associated with brutality, a holding pen for monsters, the dark side of civilization, perhaps, but certainly not with creativity. However, the inmates themselves “are always so appreciative that you’re doing something for them. There is so little productive for inmates to do, and it may be the only positive experience they have while inside.”
Eventually, Vantriglia lost those butterflies, and her enjoyment of instructing inmates grew and deepened (“I’ve never taught anywhere else”). She is not alone, as more and more artists have ventured into jails and prisons, gaining teaching experience and striving to make a difference in the world through this work. “The students are great,” said Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, a painter and professor in the art education school of the University of Iowa, who has taught in prisons off and on since the early 1990s. “They’re polite and eager to learn, and the diversity — and I don’t mean just racial, but language and learning levels as well — is wide.”
The good that art does for prison inmates seems self-evident — provides accomplishments, offers a different avenue for self-expression than violence, builds confidence, frequently leads to other areas of learning — but has not been studied and quantified, although the directors of several prison art programs offer anecdotes of former inmates who have left the path of crime. In part, the lack of research reflects the varying state definitions of recidivism (ex-convicts returning to criminal activities) — does it mean back to jail in six months or two years? Does a suspended sentence or parole count? — in addition to the fact that criminologists have not regarded the benefits of prison art programs as worthy of quantitative analysis.
Prison art programs have two principal goals: As with any form of teaching, these classes aim to teach skills and discipline, developing a creative outlet for personal expression. On occasion, there are prison art exhibitions, sometimes used as fundraisers for various causes (Texas prisons operate hobby-craft shops where inmate-produced art and other objects are sold with the proceeds used for civic improvement); at other times inmates make use of these skills to embellish letters to family members with images and designs. If one were to classify it, this is outsider art. Still, few people make high claims on behalf of the art produced in prisons. The other goal is giving inmates something positive to do.
“You can’t just throw them away, no matter what they did,” Williams said. “People who do well in art classes gain confidence and take other class, which is important since most inmates have very little education. They are motivated to try to change their lives. Would I rather have someone leave prison who has had a chance to reflect on what he or she has done than someone else who did nothing improving and just came out angry and ready to commit another crime?”
As many inmates have little education or workplace skills, the ability to draw — especially to render likenesses — is high prized in prisons, according to many artists who teach in these facilities. Inmates who can draw are often asked to create portraits for other inmates who are writing letters to family members, as well as to design tattoos, for which they may be paid in some form of prison barter. Helping inmates trade portraits for cigarettes, money or even some contraband “may not be something you or the prison officials want to encourage,” Williams conceded, and Phyllis Kornfeld, a painter in Stockbridge, Massachusetts who has taught in prisons since 1984, stated that she has asked inmates to leave her classes when learning how to render likenesses appeared to be their principal goal: “If an inmates wants pencils to do portraits, so he can get something, then the experience isn’t transformative,” she said. “There’s no seriousness, no commitment.” Still, Williams stated, these are skills, and they offer other outlets than violence or anger to fill the time.
Like Vantriglia, both Williams and Kornfeld recalled nervousness during their first entry into prisons but claimed that they quickly got over it, preferring inmates to some other students in less restrictive settings. “There are long waiting lists to get into an art class, so they wouldn’t want to jeopardize it by hurting me,” Kornfeld said, noting that her favorite inmate students are in maximum security prisons. “The higher the security, the more I like it. They’re focused; they know they will be in there for a long time, and they want something to do with their time.” Short-term inmates, whose crimes may be less heinous, on the other hand, usually are less interested in investing their time in what an outside instructor has to offer, she added. The inmates in a prison art class are not chosen at random but have signed up to be there; that self-selection weeds out more disruptive types whom artists would likely be glad are not there.
Still, artists are not left on their own but are often outfitted with an alarm that would quickly summon guards, or there may be guards posted at the door of the art room. “I’ve never been threatened,” said Grady Hillman, a poet and president of Southwest Correctional Art Network, which places artists of various disciplines in prisons. “There have never been any physical threats. No one has ever pulled a knife. I’ve encountered my share of sociopaths, but it’s no worse than teaching in a junior high school.”
Artist entering a prison receive a certain amount of training, either from a sponsoring organization or from prison officials. Often, they will be patted down and searched on entering and leaving the institution. In all cases, they are told not to provide personal information, such as a last name, an address or work affiliation, as well as the names of siblings or other family members. Hugging and other forms of touching also are to be avoided. Artists may not accept gifts or take out of the prison a written note. Vantriglia noted that “a few people have fallen in love with me; someone sent me a wedding contract.” Williams, who has primarily worked with women inmates, noted that some relationship have become more personal “after I’ve gotten to know them for a number of years.” She even attended a former inmate’s wedding, but clear boundaries exist for a reason. The husband of an inmate in one of her art classes once “came to my house, bringing me something he wanted me to give to his wife, and that was a little weird.” She refused (with no repercussions). Since respect is often a major issue among inmates, especially younger ones, Hillman stated, artists should not humiliate their students — “don’t make jokes at the expense of someone, or set someone up as an example.”
Artists usually are advised not to turn their backs on students, to wear modest clothing — no exposed midriffs, no torn pants — and not to make comments that are risqué, regardless of the intent. “It’s a waste of time to make jokes,” Kornfeld said. “This isn’t a social event. I want them to stay focused, not to banter.”
Not offering personal information is perhaps the most notable difference between teaching in a prison and anywhere else, but it becomes easier over time, since inmates similarly don’t reveal much to each other. Prison rules are quite strict for a reason, and artists need to maintain a structured environment rather than create an art school’s do-your-own-thing sensibility in these classes. A limited number of supplies may be bought in or supplied by the prison — nothing with sharp points, such as scissors, nothing with toxic odors, such as oil paints, nothing that must be assembled can be disassembled — and each item is likely to be counted at the beginning and end of a given class. Not all prisons follow the same security rules (some facilities allow inmates to take paper and pencils back to their cells, in order to practice skills between classes), but safety is always a concern.
Prison art classes may last from 90 minutes to five hours (including set-up and clean-up time), depending upon the project inmates are working on, and take place one or more times per week. In most instances, artists are paid by a sponsoring organization, a particular prison or a governmental agency, at the rate of between $35 and $50 per hour, although some artists also go in as volunteers. Auburn University in Alabama, Brown University in Rhode Island and the University of Michigan each run prison arts programs in which students are sent into correctional facilities as teachers for school credit.
For professional artists, the diversity of a class may seem more daunting than anything else, with a wider range of natural abilities and education among inmates than artists are likely to find in other teaching opportunities. “Many of them don’t have long attention spans, and many cannot follow complicated instructions,” Vantriglia said. As a result, she usually has four or five different activities taking place within a class, all of them focused on community service, such as making Valentines Day cards for patients at a Veterans Administration hospital, Christmas cards for those in nursing homes, painted t-shirts for at-risk teenagers and canvas paintings for more skilled inmates. “You don’t want an art class to become one more thing they can fail at.”
Williams noted that artists going into prisons should “prepare themselves for a feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, everyone seems very nice and respectful; they’re very appreciative that you’ve come there to do this for them. You also know that they have done, in many cases, really horrible things. You’re sitting across from someone who might otherwise seem like a monster.” Not knowing the particular crimes they have committed, and not asking, enables her to focus on teaching art skills, and she also stated that “people are not their crimes” — that sentiment is universal among the artists who go into penitentiaries. They are not there to forgive or provide therapy or to be voyeurs. While not discounting personal responsibility, Williams and others involved in this realm of teaching said that most inmates come from single-parent impoverished households in low-rent communities, are members of minority groups and have limited education and skills. “Whatever they may have done, these are human beings, who need to be treated humanely and given creative things to do,” she said. It is an argument people in this field have found themselves making when confronted by members of victims rights advocacy groups. Susan Wolfe, a painter in Wichita, Kansas who taught art to inmates at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility in Hutchinson, Kansas for a number of years, countered criticism of her work inside a penitentiary by citing the Gospel According to Matthew (26.43-5), “The Bible says we should minister to people in the prisons,” she said. A larger program, the Healing Walls Project of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based Mural Arts Program, has prisoners and victims of crime work together to create murals. Producing murals that will be placed in the various neighborhoods from which they came results in inmates taking pride in their communities. “It’s a civic engagement and creating art at the same time,” said Jane Golden, a muralist and director of the Mural Arts Program. “By giving back, they start to figure out how to reconstruct the narrative of their own lives. Art can play a significant role in their rehabilitation.”
Opportunities abound for artists to work in correctional institutions. There are currently 5,000 or so jails (short-term incarceration) and prisons (long-term) around the United States, housing approximately 2.2 million convicted criminals, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Prisons Foundation (which has an art gallery displaying images created at facilities around the country). One-fifth of these lock-ups have creational programs — jails tend to offer fewer classes than prisons, because of the more rapid turnover of inmates. A clear drawback of teaching in prisons is distance, since these facilities usually are sited in remote, mural areas, requiring drives of up to an hour or more each way. State and country bureaus of correction are likely to know of private programs that place artists in prisons, and many correctional institutions have their own recreation and treatment director who works with outside groups or arranges to bring in individuals to teach. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, on the other hand, refers inquiries from artists to directors of individual institutions.