A conference hosted by Rutgers Institute for Research on Women shows how inmates are reclaiming their identity and expressing their humanity through art

Bone Shaker
Larry Machado scavenged rodent remains for a year to create "Bone Shaker," his dream mini-motorcycle.
Photo courtesy of the William James Association

About 1.35 million people are incarcerated in state prisons, 217,800 in federal prisons and 744,500 in local jails, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. How can these populations reclaim their sense of humanity? How can they connect with the outside world and express themselves, especially to those they love?

Such are the issues that will be addressed and illustrated through the use of multimedia during “Marking Time: Prison Arts and Activism Conference,” a three-day event organized by Rutgers’ Institute for Research on Women, October 8 - 10.

The conference brings together scholars, writers, artists and activists from across the nation and overseas to explore the cultural aspects of imprisonment by focusing on visual and performing art produced by prisoners. In addition, IRW has organized a curated exhibition of works by current and formerly incarcerated individuals, which will be shown throughout October in a variety of locations in New Brunswick, including the Alfa Art Gallery, Rutgers Art Library, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Heldrich Hotel, New Brunswick Public Library and the Zimmerli Art Museum.

Rutgers Today spoke to Nicole Fleetwood, IRW director and the conference’s lead organizer, about how prisoners’ artistic self-expression help them communicate to the outside world and assist with a successful reintegration into society.

Rutgers Today: Why should the public care about art created by those incarcerated? 

Fleetwood: There is a huge gap between the dominant public perception of prisoners as lacking in value and their humanity and productivity. Prisoners are individuals who dream and envision brighter futures and who are cherished loved ones to families on the outside. Art helps to challenge the dehumanization of the incarcerated. Research has shown that people who are involved in prison art programs are much more successful at reentry and have lower rates of recidivism. For example, a study found that 74 percent of parolees who participated in California’s Arts-in-Corrections Program had clean records one year after their release, compared to 49 percent of non-participants. Two years later, 58 percent of non-participants had been in trouble again, compared to 31 percent of the participants.

Jesse Krimes
For three years, Jesse Krimes confiscated bed sheets, newspaper clippings and commissary supplies to create his large-scale mural "Apokaluptein:16389067" (detail shown).
Photo courtesy of Jesse Krimes

Rutgers Today: How did the idea for a conference on prison art originate?

Fleetwood: I have relatives who have been incarcerated for a long period and have seen how this impacts family life. As a visual person, I was struck whenever I received a photograph or handmade greeting card from one of my cousins in prison and started researching prison art for a book. The more I talked to people, the more I realized how the U.S. prison system directly affects the general population. For every one of the millions of people incarcerated, there are exponentially more loved ones who are affected. There was so much interest that I expanded the idea into a conference.

Rutgers Today: What is the meaning of the title “Marking Time?"

Fleetwood: A lot of art created in prisons is reflective of time. Prisoners are biding time, and art is a mark that they leave to confirm their existence.  Prison forces one into this punitive relationship with time, where one is counting the days to be released. I think that relationship to time – and possibly after serving time – for some leads to compelling creative practices. Art also marks that journey for many.

Rutgers Today: How do prisoners produce art with limited materials?

Fleetwood: Oh, ingenuity and creativity abound. Many prisoners produce pieces with found objects. For example, for over a year Larry Machado collected the remains of small rodents from the prison yard to construct his dream miniature motorcycle, which he titled “Bone Shaker.” Jesse Krimes, who served 70 months in a federal prison, used confiscated bed sheets, newspaper clippings and commissary supplies to create secret works, which he then smuggled out through the mail piece by piece and only saw united after his release. This powerful large-scale mural, “Apokaluptein: 16389067,” is currently being exhibited at the Zimmerli Art Museum.

Rutgers Today: How do prisoners use art to communicate with the outside world?

Fleetwood: Once someone has a felony conviction, he is marked for the rest of his life. A prisoner’s primary audience is his loved ones – those who will recognize him as someone other than how he is negatively defined by the judicial system. It’s important for those who are incarcerated to express themselves as the complex human beings that they are.  For example, one of the works we feature is Russel Craig’s self-portrait, which is a painted representation of his prison ID card. Instead of allowing himself to be defined punitively by the state system, Craig took control of his own image.

Russel Craig
Russell Craig recreated his prison ID with acrylic on cloth as his self-portrait.
Photo courtesy of Russel Craig

Rutgers Today: Are there professional programs that help prisoners express themselves through art?

Fleetwood: The conference features speakers from innovative prison art programs, which promote visual as well as literary and performing arts. Two programs of note are the William James Association in California, which is the nation’s longest-running initiative, and the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, which hosts one of the largest prisoner art exhibitions in the world and publishes a literary journal of writing by incarcerated authors.

Professional artists also collaborate with prisoners. Artist Phyllis Kornfeld, who has taught art to prisoners for decades, and photographer Deborah Luster, who has produced thousands of creative portraits of individuals who were incarcerated in Louisiana, will speak about how their work humanizes prisoners. Luster encourages her subjects to give their opinions on how the photographs are produced. Since so much of a prisoner’s image is defined as “bad,” these opportunities to be part of the creative process are very empowering for them.

Patti Verbanas

For more information, contact Patti Verbanas at 973-972-7272 or patti.verbanas@rutgers.edu