Arts access in prison

Outside Looking In by James Pinder — Courtesy of Jeffrey Greene.
Outside Looking In by James Pinder — Courtesy of Jeffrey Greene.

Not all artists work out of turpentine perfumed studios or cramped apartments. For the artists showing in the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum’s latest exhibit, they created their work while incarcerated.

Connecticut has 15 state prisons, one being the Manson Youth Institution for male offenders ages 14-21. According to Connecticut’s Department of Corrections (DOC), the state has closed five other state prisons in the past decade. Of the remaining prisons, only four out of the 15 listed some form of arts program on the DOC website. Cheshire Correctional Institution (CI) and Robinson CI list graphic arts as a program accessible for inmates. As part of the program, inmates learn and practice silk screening and laser engraving to provide them with a new trade after they are released. The DOC also noted that Garner CI has an expressive arts therapy program. All of the state prisons offer adult education courses that include language arts and the DOC notes that five of the state prisons offer a culinary arts program.

According to the DOC website, York CI — a women’s prison — is the only institution with an artists-in-residency program with Community Partners in Action (CPA).

Prison Arts Program

The CPA’s Prison Arts Program is currently displaying an exhibit, How Art Changed the Prison, at the Aldrich in Ridgefield which runs through May 27. The exhibit features art made by inmates formerly or currently incarcerated in Connecticut’s state prisons.

Jeffrey Greene, the program manager for the CPA Prison Arts Program and curator of the Aldrich’s exhibit, said his program works with all 15 of Connecticut’s state prisons in some capacity. He said the Prison Arts Program is currently running workshops out of five different facilities, York CI, Osborn CI, MacDougall-Walker CI, Cheshire CI and Cybulski Community Reintegration Center, and that the CPA will be holding new workshops at Radgowski later this year.

The arts workshops hosted by his Greene and his program provide inmates with art classes and art supplies. The artist-in-residency program brings artists to the prison to discuss art techniques as well as “the logistics of being an artist in day-to-day life,” he said. The visiting artists will share their experiences with creating and sharing their art as well as how their work has evolved over time.

Materials and supplies

James Gaglione, director of the DOC’s Correctional Enterprises of Connecticut, said the Commissary offers additional crafting items for female inmates including crochet hooks in a variety of sizes as well as 18 different yarn options. He also said that all inmates have access to watercolor paint sets, colored pencils, a set of pastels, three different sketch pads, two different erasers and pencils.

Greene said the Prison Arts Program also brings supplies into the prisons, including a wide range of paper and pastels. He also said the inmates use anything in their work.

“Artists are using their own materials, they’re finding things, they’re making paints out of food stuffs, they’re carving the soap, they’re taking apart clothing and bed sheets and blankets and weaving them into other things. They’ll use ramen noodle packages and food bags. They’ll use their nail clippers to make silhouettes and cut-outs, and complex sculpture,” Greene said. “There’s all kind of materials, anything, any physical thing is fair game to make art with. They’re certainly not limited to traditional art supply so that’s probably one of the best aspects of art that’s done in prison is that they’re not beholden to any sort of traditional art supply.”

The art

Greene said the art featured in the exhibit is available for purchase and that the inmates receive 60% of the funds from the sale, 25% of the sale is used for mailing art to the inmates’ families and the remaining 15% is donated to the Office of Victim Services to the Victims Compensation Fund. The CPA will also work with inmates after their release if they choose to contact the program. Greene said they will not initiate contact with released inmates unless it is to return their artwork.

“They don’t want constant reminders [from us] because then they’re thinking about being on the block,” he said.

Federal prison

Connecticut is also home to one federal prison, Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Danbury, which is a minimum security prison housing male and female inmates. According to FCI Danbury’s Inmate Admission and Orientation Handbook , those incarcerated at the prison are permitted to participate in hobby craft and art programs as long as they don’t mass produce works or use them as a source of income. Based on the handbook, FCI Danbury inmates can create art with oil paints, pastel paints, crayons, pencils, inks and charcoal. They are also permitted to create crafts with plastic canvases and origami and through crocheting and knitting. The Prison Arts Program is not involved with FCI Danbury.