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Freedom of Expression: Art classes in California prisons

Peter Merts | California, United States

Gun tower at Solano State Prison, California.

The hellish side of prison gets a lot of press—the drugs, the gangs, the violence, the inhumanity. But there is another aspect of incarceration that I have been documenting for 15 years—this project is about inmates in California prisons who choose to study art.

These men and women have told me that art class is a sanctuary—a safe place where tribalism, hyper-vigilance, and the rules of the yard are checked at the door. In class—with the guidance and mentorship of professional artists—there is freedom to experiment, to express oneself, to collaborate, and to take risks. Research has shown that art study in prisonreduces violenceand improves inmates' self-confidence, self-awareness, and attitudes towards others. To qualify for these classes, inmates must be infraction-free for one year; most classes have a long waiting list.

For many inmates, freedom is either a fading memory or an uncertain hope—but for prison artists, freedom happens once a week—three hours at a time.

Some photos were made under contract with the California Arts Council.

This project documents prison inmates creating visual, performance, and literary artworks; beyond that, it portrays the passion, creativity, and humanity of theartists.

I am drawn to this project out of empathy—I, like many incarcerated men and women,grew up in an environment of trauma; in my case it was constant emotional and psychological trauma. My recovery, or perhaps salvation, began—after years of floundering—when I discovered artistic introspection and self-expression through photography. I pursued a succession of therapeutic and edifying fine art and documentary projects, which eventually brought me an invitation to document prison art programs. I was drawn of course to the incongruity of artistic expression in such a constrained environment, and recognized the rarity of the opportunity—but beyond these, this just felt like a good fit: a project about art as a response to a damaged life.

Over the 15 years I’ve worked this beat, my concept of it has evolved. My initial objective, documentary style soon proved inadequate as I witnessed the salubrious impacts of art practice on incarcerated men and women. I became an advocate of prison art programming, and soon thereafter co-published, with a researcher, a text-and-photo book from that perspective—Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California State Prisons—which is now in its second edition.

Studies cited in our book demonstrate the effectiveness of art practice in modifying the attitudes and behaviors of incarcerated men and women—the development of confidence, self-control, and self-awareness; the reduction of disciplinary infractions; the improvement of relationships with other inmates, staff, and family. Yet public sentiment regarding prison arts programming, and therefore institutional funding, remain tepid at best. This realization led me to recognize perhaps my most profound aspiration for this work: to illuminate the humanity of these incarcerated men and women, who are working so passionately to express themselves, to recover from their own traumas, and to lead more fulfilling lives.

the William James Association

the Prison Arts Collective




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