What Prisoners Create When They Create Art

By Jean Trounstine

For 32 years, James Riva, 55, has been incarcerated at Old Colony Correctional in Bridgewater, Mass., serving a life sentence for murder. Riva says he collects 300 to 400 four-leaf clovers every summer and dries them. “They bring no good luck or bad” but they give him some “peace,” he writes at betweenthebars.org, the blog founded by two MIT whiz kids.  Artwork by James Riva. Photo courtesy betweenthebars.org

In one of Riva’s 12 or so posts, he wrote a short story about a disturbing relationship between a mother and son that includes the details of a brutal crime. But while his haunting words paint an image, the artwork that accompanies the story shows the mystery, power, and transcendence of art. Perhaps influenced by Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, it hasn’t received a comment yet, but when it does, Riva can interact with the outside world—online.

Creating art and sharing it with the world is a way for prisoners to assert themselves back into humanity. As Supreme Court Justice’s Thurgood Marshall wrote about prisoner rights: “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality … nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.”

In a paper titled, “Mediative Collaborative Positioning: The Case of Prisoner Blogs,” researchers Mirjana Dedaic and Katherine Dale write that blogs “open a new space” for prisoners while giving them the chance to challenge their confinement by “stepping beyond the bars” into cyberspace. There, they can be educators, critics, analysts, storytellers, and in the case of art, they’re seen for their talent instead of for their crimes.

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(This article first appeared on BostonMag.com and is excerpted here by permission.)

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Jean Trounstine

Jean Trounstine is an author/editor of five published books, a professor at Middlesex Community College, and a prison activist. She worked at Framingham Women’s Prison for 10 years, where she directed eight plays and published Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison about that work. She takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick at jeantrounstine.com where she blogs bi-weekly at “Justice with Jean.”