Ever since incarcerated artist Juan C. Hernandez shared his art with me (see image, above) and proposed a solo show in the micro gallery, I’ve been learning how much I didn’t know about prisons in the United States. I mean, I knew I was against for profit prisons. I knew we locked up too many black and brown people. But, like most people going about their daily lives, I wasn’t paying much attention beyond that.
Here’s a terrific piece in the New York Times by an incarcerated writer, John J. Lennon. “I’ve Been Incarcerated for 21 Years. I Wish the Judge Could See Who I Am Today.”
The headline is about Pell Grants, which are once again available to incarcerated folks. I hadn’t been aware that they’d been blocked since 1994, and I’m glad to hear that they’re once again available (or will be, next year), allowing folks to go to college while on the inside.
Since that article is behind a paywall, I’ll pull out a few quotes for you. Mr. Lennon writes,
Access to college courses can be life-changing. Research has shown that education reduces recidivism. But education in prison can mean more than just that. Education programs also raise a big question: To what end do we educate ourselves? After I wrote an Op-Ed in 2015, faculty members for the Bard Prison Initiative responded in a letter to the editor, saying, “Prison education repurposes a captive space for the recovery of an ideal.” I agree.
When the federal funds dried up and colleges left in the mid-1990s, the hope did, too. When uneducated prisoners got out, they often came back. By the early 2000s, when I started my stint in state prison with a ninth-grade education, few college programs were left. (Others, like the privately funded Columbia courses offered in Sing Sing, came later.) We became a lost generation in American prisons.
He also writes with compassion about the need for states to better support corrections officers.
Not for Profits to Know, Working on Prison Reform
Artists are wonderful and resourceful people. Artists in some of my online groups I’m in referred me to these terrific not for profits.
“We can end youth incarceration in this generation.”
Windows from Prison
“Windows From Prison is an ongoing project that uses photography as a way to connect incarcerated men, women, and teens to their past while creating space and humanistic entry points for students, faculty, NGO’s, family members of incarcerated individuals, former prisoners, and policy makers to engage with the sources, impacts, and alternatives to mass incarceration.
Beginning with creative writing workshops with incarcerated men, women, and teens, the project asks:
“If you could have window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”
These responses become photo requests that are collaboratively produced by students, former prisoners, artists, activists, and many others.”
Stitching Abolition Conference
“A three-day convening of talks, activities, and workshops focused on the intersections of quilting, “healing” and abolition.” July 15-17, 2022, downtown Chicago, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Has a range or prices to attend.
Essay – What Do We Do with the Work of Immoral Artists?
When I had to decide whether to show the artwork of an incarcerated person, an artist friend referred me to the essay, “What Do We Do with the Work of Immoral Artists?” in Hyperallergic.
It’s an important question, for lots of male artists of the past who behaved pretty badly. It all raised an important point for me – no one on the outside had to prove that they were a good person in order for me to show their art. There was no morality test. You could say, well, “someone who is incarcerated has been officially deemed immoral/bad, the judge said so!” Yes, and they’re also paying their debt to society, and our legal system is inconsistent and Black and brown people are more likely to be locked up.
All of this went into my decision to show Juan’s art. And into the decision to continue to show art by incarcerated artists. Why? Well, why not? Why not make the world a tiny bit more fair and beautiful? And help the people who most need the assistance in sharing their art?
Juan said that his solo show in the Angelica Kauffman Gallery opened doors for him. So I’m naming this project of the micro gallery, “This Gallery Opens Doors.” I’ll show art by incarcerated artists, to start, once a quarter.
Yes, an artist who is incarcerated can submit art anytime, just like anyone else, but sometimes, making something “a thing” and inviting folks, especially folks who might not usually feel invited, can help.
I would also like to start working with not-for-profits working on prison reform; I would love to lend the micro-galleries out for public display, specifically so that more people can see the art in real life.
Art humanizes people. When we look at someone’s art, we connect with them and their humanity. Too often, people on the outside forget that those are real people on the inside, people that we’ll need/want to welcome back into society. Art seems like a good way to help people remember, those are people, not numbers.
And in my own small way, this is what I can do to help.