Art Programming for Former U.S. Prisoners Is Practically Nonexistent. Here’s Why That Should Change

The founders of Silver Art Projects argue that art is essential in helping reintegrate former prisoners into society.

Jared Owens in his studio. Courtesy Silver Art Projects.

Pablo Picasso famously said: “We artists are indestructible; even in a prison… 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.” 

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

After spending over 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, 46-year-old Dean Gillispie finally walked out of jail and into the arms of his parents three days before Christmas in 2011 thanks to the persistent efforts of the Ohio Innocence Project. Gillispie sought out ways to keep his mind and hands active while expressing emotions that were stifled in prison, and he was not alone. Painting, drawing, dioramas, poetry, and music composition are all artistic expressions that can help release one’s soul and attenuate the harsh realities of prison life. 

We first learned about 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, curated by Fleetwood, that exposed the realities and impact of mass incarceration in the U.S. through their works.

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

Since 1970, the incarcerated population in the U.S. has increased by 500 percent, with over two million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing historical population growth and crime rates over that same period. The crisis referred to as mass incarceration is shorthand for the fact that the U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation. In addition to the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S., several factors continue to bolster the systemic mass incarceration crisis, including over-policing in marginalized communities, long sentences for minor crimes, and the endless restrictions faced by those who are finally 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 impediments to employment and quality of life.

There are many ways to support efforts to combat 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, specifically artists in the LGBTQ, Black, Asian communities, and artists with disabilities. Silver Art relies on a selection committee, which has included Isolde Brielmeier, Hank Willis Thomas, Kimberly Drew, Tourmaline, Chella Man, and Hall Rockefeller, who gathered last year to review applicants. Among those applicants was Jared Owens, a multidisciplinary artist whose practice focuses on bringing awareness to the plight of nearly 2.5 million people enmeshed in the American carceral state.

Federal prisons have art programming, but most state prisons offer little to no art programming whatsoever. These programs are often the only opportunity for positive creation, and without them, people are prevented from expressing their unique perspectives. Incarceration is not meant to be fun, of course. While some argue that prison is intended as a form of punishment, and that any positive programing is a waste of taxpayer dollars, we embrace the view that imprisoned people can learn new skills, helping them reintegrate into society once their sentences are complete. What’s more, art programs are especially cathartic for those suffering with severe mental illness. 

Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), another organization that helps people in prison develop critical life skills through the arts, models its approach to the justice system based on human dignity rather than punishment. Less than 5 percent of RTA members return to prison, compared to the national recidivism rate of 60 percent. Without these programs, talented artists like Jared Owens wouldn’t have developed the work that the art world is now paying attention to. 

Many people discharged from prison face additional challenges. For example, obtaining employment is much harder for previously incarcerated people due to barriers known as “collateral consequences.” This is why it’s especially important to support formerly incarcerated people’s artwork early in their careers. As a society, we’re trying to be better at listening 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 reckon with the inequalities the U.S. faces today. 

We are excited to partner with the Art for Justice Fund to incorporate themes that address mass incarceration into Silver Art’s artist residency programming, as well as ensuring formerly incarcerated artists are represented in our future cohorts. Similarly, Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig—formerly incarcerated artists themselves—are launching an artist residency called Right of Return that focuses on hosting formerly incarcerated artists.

We challenge you to ask yourselves: Do you know any artists who have been incarcerated or families impacted by mass incarceration? Does your art collection include any artworks by formerly incarcerated artists? Great collections, both historical and contemporary, represent artworks from marginalized communities, whether that is Patrick Sun’s collection of LGBTQ artists from Asia, L.A.-based collecting couple Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen’s focus on artists of color, or Marcelle Joseph’s collection of women-only artists in the UK. 

With all the problems facing society today, there is a role that issue-based collecting can play, where collections can be built around causes we believe in. There is more room in collections for artists who have grown out of the penal system. We call on your help to support them by collecting their work and telling their stories.

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