Prisoner Art Takes Public Spotlight

Raising awareness and finding allies towards prison reform during HOPE Hoopla. L-to-R:Vanessa Lim, Lia Musumeci, Taylor DeMotta, Dashni Amin, and Gavin White. Photo credit: May Lim.  

Raising awareness and finding allies towards prison reform during HOPE Hoopla. L-to-R:Vanessa Lim, Lia Musumeci, Taylor DeMotta, Dashni Amin, and Gavin White. Photo credit: May Lim.

 

By Christopher Zoukis

At the University of Washington in Seattle, the Quad recently featured its second annual art exhibition of prisoner’s artwork. Organized by Huskies for Opportunities in Prison Education (HOPE) in partnership with University Beyond Bars and the Monroe Correctional Complex, the exhibition featured visual arts and written pieces, as well as a 6 by 9 foot representation of a prison cell for two inmates. 

The purpose of the art exhibit was to demonstrate the humanity, creativity, and intellect of incarcerated people, by exhibiting tangible evidence of the raw talent that exists in perhaps unexpected places. The exhibit also demonstrated HOPE’s mission, and that education is a human right, regardless of what an individual as previously done in their life. HOPE is trying to break down barriers and destigmatize incarcerated people. 

HOPE is a student group at the University of Washington that promotes and increases postsecondary education programs, recognizing that prison education reduces recidivism and increases successful reintegration into society. Besides the annual art exhibition, HOPE also collects textbooks for prisoners at Monroe Correctional Complex, created a scholarship program, holds panel discussions and film screenings, and has started a GoFundMe campaign. 

During the exhibition on campus the group also fundraised by selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts and lemonade, with funds going to buy dictionaries for prisoners at Monroe, and art from the previous year’s exhibition was on display and selling in a silent auction, with proceeds going to two non-profits, University Beyond Bars and Freedom Education Project, which provide accredited college courses for incarcerated students. Other art and prizes were also auctioned off, with proceeds benefitting the Social Work Students Scholarship Fund. 

HOPE’S art exhibits are not the only example of art exhibitions featuring the work of prisoners. Recently the Prison Creative Arts Program held its 21st Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, featuring more than 500 works in visual arts, creative writing, and theatre, by 250 inmates, from the state’s 30 plus prisons. This is one of the nation’s largest collections of prison art, and culminates largely from workshops done over the course of the year taught by students from the University of Michigan. 

 In California at the Del Norte County Courthouse works were also exhibited in Student Art from the Inside II, and art from Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, was on display at the Madison Public Library in Artists in Absentia. Like the participants of HOPE, the prisoners are given the chance to express themselves creatively, learn new skills, and connect with the outside world, and the exhibits create dialogue about incarceration, prison education, and the humanity of the prisoners. 

These exhibits and programs are examples of effective initiatives with tangible results. They have obvious benefits for those who are incarcerated, as well as providing real examples to share with a larger public that these programs work, and that prisoners cannot be solely defined by their criminal pasts. They create an important forum discussion, and it is great to see so many similar projects, which are all going into at least their second year, if not longer. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com