Marking Time : Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Fleetwood, Nicole R.. Marking Time : Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Harvard University Press, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Created from uci on 2020-12-19 08:48:10. Copyright © 2020. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Fleetwood, Nicole R.. Marking Time : Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Harvard University Press, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Created from uci on 2020-12-19 08:48:10. Copyright © 2020. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Ronnie Goodman,
San Quentin Arts
in Corrections Art
Studio, 2008.
Fleetwood, N. R. (2020). Marking time : Art in the age of mass incarceration. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’)
href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from uci on 2021-01-03 11:12:58. Copyright © 2020. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
In Ronnie Goodman’s 2008 painting San Quentin
Arts in Corrections Art Studio, the artist is alone at work in a studio. The selfportrait locates him inside a cavernous space of multistoried walls and beamed
ceilings. We see him in profile, from the knees up, dressed all in blue and bent
slightly forward, studying a print. The painting’s elements—his solo presence,
surrounded by stillness, and his relaxed stance, with angled head and paper in
hand—suggest an immersive state of creativity and concentration. On the walls,
dwarfing him and above his reach, are portraits, landscape paintings, and stilllife renditions. It is morning, gauging from the clock behind him and the light
pouring in through the glass-block windows that run the length of the wall.
The details of the workspace—the light, the height, and the open floor plan—all
suggest an idyllic scene for the creation of art. Goodman’s painting, indeed, references a long tradition of documenting the artist at work in a studio, art class,
museum, or other institutional setting, such as Samuel Morse’s Gallery of the
Louvre (1831–1833) and Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Studio) (2014). It is an act
of self-invention in which Goodman inserts himself into studio art traditions.
Goodman made the painting while he was incarcerated at San Quentin State
Prison and a participant in the Arts in Corrections workshop run by the William
James Association, a nonprofit organization that provides art classes in prisons
throughout California. Though the workshop takes place in a prison, there are
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no figures of authority or evidence of punitive captivity immediately visible in the
painting, except for Goodman’s uniform and the surveillance window in the upper
left corner: a sign of penal supervision through which correction officers can monitor incarcerated people while remaining out of sight.
The prison studio, in Goodman’s painting, is a place of imaginative possibility
as well as a place constrained by his incarceration and the layered history of the
carceral state. He meditates on his status as prisoner and artist—portraying himself creating in this space while being marked by his prison blues and the invisible surveillance of the prison staff. His painting reflects on the conditions under
which art is made within prisons while also reimagining the space by curating
the wall display inside the painting. He is studying both a work in hand and the
space around him. Goodman brings some pieces closer to him, highlighting
works that he favors. “I kind of rearranged it the way I wanted it on the wall. It
wasn’t like that arbitrarily. I fixed certain things the way I wanted it done. I wanted
to make sure I had a lot of my stuff. That was the piece I was looking at in my
hand. . . . I’m drawing my stuff, so you can see, and you can see other people’s
work I liked that was there.”1
He has altered and curated the penal space, positioning portraits of his friends nearby and asserting his vision while being held
captive. His representation of the workshop is an act of aesthetic discernment. It
also represents a striking contrast to the tiny cells where Goodman and other imprisoned people spend the majority of their time. In those cells, incarcerated
people dream, plan, collect material, and make art that often goes undetected by
prison authorities and unlicensed by teachers and administrators.
Goodman’s self-portrait foregrounds how the work of art emerges in relation
to institutions, be they entities commonly associated with art, like ateliers, conservatories, museums, and galleries, or other institutional sites, like primary
schools, subway stations, public streets, and even prisons. The painting is an example of what I call “carceral aesthetics,” which refers to ways of envisioning and
crafting art and culture that reflect the conditions of imprisonment. Every year,
incarcerated people create millions of paintings, drawings, sculptures, greeting
cards, collages, and other visual materials that circulate inside prisons; between
incarcerated people and their loved ones; in private collections of the imprisoned,
prison staff, teachers, and others; and more recently in public domains and institutions like museums, libraries, hospitals, and universities. Prison art is produced
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in a number of ways and for different audiences: through programs run by prisons,
through organizations that bring art instruction and services into prisons, through
formal and informal networks of incarcerated people who share art and supplies,
and through collaborations between incarcerated people and nonincarcerated artists, allies, relatives, and friends. The majority of art-making in prisons takes
place in cells and prison hobby shops, where incarcerated people improvise and
experiment with the numerous constraints under which they serve penal time.
Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration is about both the centrality
of prisons to contemporary art and culture, and the robust world of art-making
inside US prisons. It emphasizes the aesthetic engagement and knowledge worlds
of people largely excluded from civic life, art establishments, and public culture—
people warehoused in US prisons—through examining art by incarcerated people,
both solo and in collaboration with nonincarcerated artists, activists, and teachers,
practices that explore the expansive reach of the carceral state. The stakes of these
collaborations across prison bars are the subject of Chapter 5.
Prison art practices resist the isolation, exploitation, and dehumanization of
carceral facilities. They reconstitute what productivity and labor mean in states of
captivity, as many of these works entail laborious, time-consuming, and immersive practices and planning. Art-making in prison is also important to consider as
part of the larger contemporary art world, although prison art rarely appears in
public galleries or museums. But established art institutions do not reflect the vast
amount of art practices in any given era. To consider art by incarcerated people as
existing outside of art discourses or institutions rehearses the violent erasure of
being imprisoned. Like art made in other arenas, prison art exists in relation to
economies, power structures governing resources and access, and discourses
that legitimate certain works as art and others as craft, material object, historical
artifact, or trash.
Visual art is just one arena of a broader world of cultural production in prisons.
Prison literature, music, and theater have received more attention by scholars,
writers, and advocates. Writings from prison, like the works of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Oscar Wilde, Etheridge Knight, Antonio Gramsci, Jimmy Santiago
Baca, Jack Henry Abbott, and George Jackson, are taught regularly in university
courses. Sharon Luk’s 2018 book, The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living
beyond Captivity, offers a stunning and rich analysis of the significance of letter
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correspondence between incarcerated people and their loved ones and communities over various historical moments; she emphasizes the poetics and materiality of letter writing.2
Collections of prison sound recordings have been produced
for decades, and prison theater has been staged and anthologized. Less attention
has been paid to the visual. A notable exception is Phyllis Kornfeld’s Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America (1997), an informative dive into art-making in prisons
based on Kornfeld’s years of teaching in various facilities and states. Kornfeld sets
out to focus on art, and not the politics of prison, writing that she leaves that for
experts of prison reform.3
I set out to engage the politics of art-making in prisons,
and, more expansively, art as politics in an era of massive human caging and under
other forms of carceral power. How has the colossal reach of the prison industrial
complex shaped contemporary art institutions and art-making? And how does visual art help to reveal the depths and devastation of our nation’s punishment
Take, for example, the paintings I Am the Economy (2018) and How Big House
Products Make Boxer Shorts (2018), by artist James “Yaya” Hough, made while imprisoned in Pennsylvania. In both works, the unclothed body of a black man appears to be fed into a machine operated by a white man in uniform. In I Am the
Economy, the other end of the machine churns out dollar bills as the racialized
prison population is “harshly and mechanically converted into cash by the prison
industrial complex.”4
In How Big House Products Make Boxer Shorts, the captive
body produces commodity goods, in this case underpants, that are sold back to
incarcerated people. The bodies of imprisoned black men in Hough’s paintings
fuel prisons by employing people like the uniformed white man operating the machine, the vendors who sell commodities, those who profit from the financialization of prisons and carceral facilities, and other networks and entities entangled in
carceral governance. Hough’s work visualizes what esteemed scholar and prison
abolition activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as the extractive processes of the
prison industrial complex: “Prisons enable money to move because of the enforced
inactivity of people locked in them. It means people extracted from communities,
and people returned to communities but not entitled to be of them, enable the
circulation of money on rapid cycles. What’s extracted from the extracted is the
resource of life—time.”5 Hough’s art also echoes the concerns of nonincarcerated conceptual artist Cameron Rowland, whose works explore the extractive
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James “Yaya”
Hough, I Am the
Economy, 2018.
James “Yaya”
Hough, How Big
House Products
Make Boxer Shorts,
2018. Watercolor.
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and exploitive processes of black subjugation and confinement under racial capitalism. One artist in a prison cell in Pennsylvania, the other in a studio in New
York City, unaware of each other, make art that diagnoses the extractive practices
of prisons as a continuance of the subjugation of black people.
Both Hough’s and Rowland’s practices challenge the “inside” and “outside”
logic of carcerality. Yet this idea of separation between the incarcerated and the
nonincarcerated underpins the rationale of locking people up in cages and rendering them invisible as a measure of safety. Through artistic practices and creative communities inside prison, incarcerated artists fight the punitive isolation
and severance of relationships that prisons impose. They work to undermine the
carceral indexes, meaning the data and records—like mug shots—that mark
people as criminal and incarcerated subjects, and the stigma of being a prisoner.
Prison art is part of the long history of captive people envisioning freedom—
creating art, imagining worlds, and finding ways to resist and survive.
Jared Owens, a formerly incarcerated artist, once described to me the risks involved in experimenting with art while in a federal prison. As an abstract painter,
he wanted to make works larger than the canvases permitted. He saw a wood plank
that would allow him to stretch a larger canvas. He decided to acquire the plank,
which meant he would need to avoid detection by prison staff. Owens stated, “That
was the longest three yards of my life.” I couldn’t shake his words and the significance of the risk-taking involved in expanding his artistic vision. Had Owens been
caught at any step along his three-yard journey to and from the plank, he could
have been thrown in the hole, his sentence extended, and his possessions confiscated. This book curves and weaves around the aesthetic risks, experimentations,
and practices of incarcerated people who imagine, create, and produce under a
system of punishment so brutal that most of the nonincarcerated public cannot
even conceive of it. I could not have completed this book without Owens and other
currently and formerly incarcerated artists being willing to share their experiences
of making art, asserting their humanity, and claiming value and meaning while
held in punitive captivity.
Very often, artists described being locked away and forgotten as an impetus
behind their art-making. They have been punished and incapacitated; they have
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been labeled as problems to other people, communities, and society at large.
Prisons are “catchall solutions to social problems,” writes Gilmore.6
They function not by addressing the poverty, racial and gender oppression, underemployment, despair, and health crises (to name just a few factors) that reproduce prison
populations but by incapacitating targeted populations and blaming them for the
very problems that led to their imprisonment. Incarcerated artists deliberately
take the status of being labeled a social problem or failure as the very grounds for
their artistic experimentation. Failure amplifies their aesthetic improvisations
and the risks they will take to produce works and worlds that exceed the prison.
When many nonincarcerated people think of prison art, images of handicrafts
made from Popsicle sticks, illustrations on envelopes, crocheted placemats made
from synthetic yarn, and forms of body art, like prison tattoos, come to mind. Shop
projects, like wooden jewelry boxes and furniture, are popular in some facilities,
as are making signs and murals in cafeterias, hallways, and visiting rooms. These
are some of the works of incarcerated artists, along with a vast range of other art
forms that defy common perceptions of the cultural lives and artistic worlds of
imprisoned people. Many of them are reflections of the material limitations and
scarcity of art supplies inside, constraints that some transform into innovative experiments with found objects, ephemera, and state property. A leaf painting by
Todd (Hyung-Rae) Tarselli animates such possibility. On a browned autumn leaf
fallen from a maple tree, he has painted in realistic detail a chipmunk; microstrokes
of brown, white, and red render the texture of fur along the animal’s body. The
eye of its profiled face shines brightly. Behind the chipmunk, Tarselli has painted
dark blades of grass and a harvest on which the animal nourishes itself—a scene
from nature painted on a piece of nature created in a prison cell. The life of the
leaf as organic matter is part of the art, with holes on the surface from decomposing. Tarselli has spent years in solitary confinement, where he paints and draws
scenes of nature. He also makes explicitly political art that condemns the prison
industrial complex and embraces revolutionary and liberatory ideologies of previous social movements, knowledge of which he acquired through reading and
learning from others held captive, as part of what Dylan Rodríguez calls “the radical prison praxis” of imprisoned intellectuals that continues to influence generations of people locked away. Tarselli’s work materializes the conditions out of
which prison art emerges: penal space, penal matter, and penal time, concepts
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that I elaborate on in Chapter 1. In brief, penal space is the architectural confinement and the sets of relations that imprisonment structures; penal matter is the
limited access to material goods and objects for the production of culture in prison;
and penal time is punishment measured as time in captivity or under state supervision, such as parole.
Art made in prisons is commonly described under the rubric of “outsider art”
or “folk art,” meaning art made by artists who have no or little formal training or
who create outside of established art institutions. Other studies have focused on
art programs and workshops that are based on models of art therapy, which grow
out of the disciplines of psychology, education, and criminology and which promote exploring creative outlets as forms of healing and rehabilitating people. I
do not employ the discourse of rehabilitative arts, although some of the artists
and teachers I interviewed adhere to this framework. My main concern about a
rehabilitative framework is that in its primary focus on changing the individual,
it does not offer an analysis or critique of how the carceral state relies on producing
criminal subjects and diminishing the life possibilities of entire populations. The
framework of rehabilitative arts does not address the larger structural and political
relationships that I attempt to map between art, aesthetics, and the carceral state.
Moreover, my engagement with art is through the lens of an abolitionist vision to
end human caging and the conditions that produce prisons. So while I do not
write about prison art as necessarily therapeutic or rehabilitative (as those concepts are used in penal and clinical settings), I do acknowledge and respect that
many incarcerated artists use and understand art-making as part of their healing
and coping inside prisons.
Art made in US prisons and detention centers (what some call “cellblock art”
and others call “inmate art”) is so common that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has
several pages of guidelines that regulate the making, distributing, and selling of
art in carceral facilities. The guidelines give prison administrators wide authority over how each prison or jail handles art-making: “The Warden may restrict, for reasons of security and housekeeping, the size and quantity of all products made in the art and hobbycraft program. Paintings mailed out of the
institution must conform to both institution guidelines and postal regulations. If
an inmate’s art work or hobbycraft is on public display, the Warden may restrict
the content of the work in accordance with community standards of decency.”7
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Under the warden’s discretion, the prison provides incarcerated people with the ability to mail art to friends
or family (at the prisoner’s expense) and to give work
to family members with approval during visits.
In many institutions, incarcerated artists are also
allowed to sell works under regulations by warden or
staff that usually involve the prison taking a percentage of the sale. In the state of Ohio, for example,
prisons take 20 percent of all art sales. Art made by
the imprisoned can be quite lucrative for some institutions, and art workshops and education can function
as ways of managing people held captive so that they
do not challenge prison authority. At Louisiana State
Penitentiary, also known as Angola, prison art is
widely sold at the biannual rodeo show, bringing in
significant profit to the institution and a percentage to
incarcerated people who can use it toward commissary or can send it home to relatives.8
In fact, most of
these programs could not run without the permission of wardens and departments of correction who see the benefit of art-making to the operations of
prisons. But in light of ways that prisons can instrumentalize prison art to maintain institutions, incarcerated artists and their nonincarcerated allies innovate
and engage aesthetic practices that exceed and defy the strictures of prisons.
Moreover, prison art shifts how we think about art collections and art collectors. The primary collectors of art made in prison are other imprisoned people
and their loved ones. Art proliferates in prisons, and substantial collections exist
inside cells, storage units, and classrooms of carceral facilities. Prison staff are
also collectors of art made inside. Employees of prisons often commission incarcerated people to make art on their behalf and negotiate rates within the prison
economy. These negotiations usually take place off record and between people occupying very different positions of power. “Commission” and “negotiation” are
fraught terms to describe arrangements in which unfree artists are asked by people
who hold enormous authority over their livelihood to make art in exchange for
money, goods, or special treatment. Most artists who described making work for
Todd (Hyung-Rae) Tarselli,
untitled (chipmunk
painting), 2017.
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prison staff discussed how they would barter with the staff for access to prohibited material or favors, including help getting clandestine art sent out of prison.
For incarcerated people, access to art-making and ownership of one’s art vary
widely across prisons and detention centers. Some facilities have fully stocked art
rooms and offer art classes in multiple genres. In others, incarcerated people create
peer-run art groups where they share resources and teach each other techniques.
Artists often appropriate state material in the service of art, a practice that is a rule
infraction and can result in work being confiscated and other forms of punishment.
Their practices are highly surveilled, and art can be seized for many reasons. “Officers can confiscate pictures because of their subject matter. Nude pinups usually
receive tacit approval so long as the art is enjoyed discreetly. It can be hung on cell
walls in some prisons and not in others. . . . If a painting can be interpreted as inciteful to riot, it will be confiscated. Images of violence against officers, gang symbols, racist insults, and offensive writing are forbidden,” writes Kornfeld.9
In places
like the death row unit of Louisiana State Prison, condemned people are now legally
prohibited from making art without the warden’s approval, after the art of one man
on death row made it out and was sold online. A 2012 state law declares, “Any
sketch, painting, drawing or other pictorial rendering produced in whole or in part
by a capital offender, unless authorized by the warden of the institution,” is to be
considered contraband, and creating it is a crime punishable by up to five years of
imprisonment.10 The law was implemented as a measure to prevent people on
death row from acquiring fame or financially profiting off their imprisonment.
The issue of ownership of and profiting from art made by the incarcerated turned
into international news in 2017, when the Pentagon attempted to shut down Ode to
the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay, an exhibit of art by current and former detainees
at the military prison. The pieces were created in an official program in which detainees were provided access to art courses. The exhibit was widely praised, with
reviews in the Paris Review, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Guardian.
One such painting, by Muhammad al Ansi, depicts the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi,
the Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as his family sought
refuge. Ansi based his painting on a widely circulated photograph of Kurdi’s dead
body on a Turkish beach by Turkish photojournalist Nilüfer Demir.11
Though the Department of Defense had initially approved the art for the exhibition, stamping the backs of the works with “Approved by US Forces,” the US
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government subsequently appeared to have reservations about the works’ enthusiastic reception and the narrative of captivity emerging from news coverage. It
also objected to attempts at selling any of the works. As a result, the military has
prohibited art from leaving the camp, meaning detainees can no longer give their
works to their attorneys or family, which prior to the show had been common practice. The Pentagon released the following statement: “Items produced by detainees
at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government.”12 According to
this policy, detainees are no longer able to take their art with them if and when they
are released. Instead, the military proposed incinerating art left behind.
As access to and ownership of prison art are contested, so too is the category
itself. The term, as one art historian told me, leaves little to the imagination; it
tells the audience what to expect before they even look. Similarly, a writer interested in the topic discouraged use of the term, warning that it suggested devalued
Muhammad al Ansi, untitled
(Alan Kurdi), 2016.
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and amateur forms of art-making. He was concerned that the term would diminish the aesthetic innovation of the art made inside prisons. Treacy Ziegler, an
art instructor in prisons and curator of Without the Wall—an art exhibit of works
by anonymous artists, half of whom were incarcerated—offers a similar critique
of the category. In curating the show, Ziegler queried, “Can we experience art
without the story of the artist?”13 Without the Wall attempted to challenge the public’s conception of prison art by asking audiences to consider their investments
in interpreting such work through stereotyped ideas about the themes, genres,
and media used by incarcerated artists. But a journalist reporting on the exhibition also noted the contradiction in this curatorial exercise, arguing that much of
the draw of the show for audiences was that some of the art came from prison.
How does art made in captivity challenge familiar assumptions about what it
means to be imprisoned while still revealing the institutional constraints out of
which it emerges? Questions about the terminology we use for prison art and the
conditions in which it gets produced have become even more timely as art by incarcerated people circulates more widely in the public sphere. During an artist
talk that I moderated with a formerly incarcerated artist, a man in the audience
commented on how rarely we discuss the significance of the setting in which
works are made when looking at art by nonincarcerated people. The formerly incarcerated artist agreed, but also made clear that when a piece of art is made in
prison, it is impossible not to acknowledge the significance of the institutional
context. He noted that his artwork changed significantly when he went to prison
because of the setting, the regulation of time, the constant presence of correction
officers, and the limited access to materials—all of which altered his aesthetic horizon. For him, penal time, penal matter, and penal space led to a more deliberate, repetitive, and sometimes even mechanical process—one that produced
labor-intensive, time-laden works that he would not have made outside punitive
I use the term “prison art” instead of “prisoner art” because I think the former
is more capacious and expansive and also includes art made in collaboration with
nonincarcerated artists. It is a term that attempts to destigmatize incarcerated artists while gesturing at the ways that incarceration reaches far beyond prison
walls and the ways that mass imprisonment impacts aesthetics and culture more
broadly. These creative practices become more urgent and grow in scale and
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number as survival strategies in the wake of mass incarceration. With the growth
of prisons over the past few decades, the modes of resistance and forms of culture made by imprisoned people have expanded.
Mass Incarceration and Carceral Visuality
My analysis of some of the aesthetic and cultural implications of incarceration
benefits from recent works by scholars, activists, lawyers, and journalists on mass
incarceration and the US prison system. Investigations of the historical, legal, sociological, geographic, and economic dimensions of prisons have offered analyses of the range of causes and implications of the rise in prison populations and
structures of penality. Attacks on radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the
War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror, deindustrialization, neoliberal policies, law-and-order policing, segregated and punitive education, unemployment, the criminalization of poverty, austerity measures, and the ongoing
war on nonwhite, queer, and gender-nonconforming people—all have contributed
to an increase in the US prison population by over 500 percent since the 1970s.14
Historian Elizabeth Hinton chronicles how attacks by federal, state, and local government agencies against black activism of the 1960s and 1970s partly gave rise
to the punitive policies of policing, surveillance, and harsh sentencing that created mass incarceration: “Built by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who
privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil rights
movement, over time, the carceral state and the network of programs it encompassed came to dominate government responses to American inequality. Indeed,
crime control may be the domestic policy issue in the late twentieth century where
conservative and liberal interests most thoroughly intertwined.”15 Other scholars
have examined how the War on Drugs has resulted in one in five people in US
prisons serving time for drug charges.16 The confluence of causes and circumstances has resulted in the United States having the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with “almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian
Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities,
civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S.
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territories.”17 Laws like the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of
1994 have resulted in longer and harsher sentences, the lowering of the age at
which people are sent to prison, the overuse of solitary confinement, the increase
in life sentencing, and a vast expansion of the reach of incarceration far beyond
the prison walls. As one example of the impact of this punitive turn, a 2017 study
by the Sentencing Project reports that life sentences have quadrupled since 1984,
resulting in over 206,000 people serving life or “virtual life” sentences in 2016.
Of those serving life, almost half are black.18 Currently, there are efforts from the
grassroots level to local politics to state and federal proposals to undo some of
these punitive laws and sentencing guidelines, but they are small in scale compared to the massive toll and devastation of the carceral state.19
In addition to scholarly and journalistic investigations, activists and organizers
have been crucial in bringing public awareness to the reach and devastation of
prisons. They have often used visual advocacy to illustrate the scope and toll of
the prison industrial complex, and these works are part of the broad arena of the
visual culture of mass incarceration. One of the farthest-reaching is the rich accumulation of posters and data reproduced on the website Prison Culture: How
the PIC Structures Our World, edited and archived by Mariame Kaba. Kaba, a
longtime activist and abolition organizer, began the site to gather sources on mass
incarceration and the prison industrial complex to share with others. Over time,
it incorporated sources from others as a collective effort to amass art, readings,
and other resources to understand and analyze prisons’ impact on modern life.
One example of Kaba’s visual advocacy in collaboration with other abolitionists
is No Selves to Defend: A Legacy of Criminalizing Women of Color for Self-Defense, a
visual and poetic anthology created to raise funds for the defense campaign of
Marissa Alexander, who was incarcerated for fighting back against her abusive
partner. No Selves to Defend comprises portraits of women of color incarcerated
for defending themselves; proceeds from the anthology’s sales went toward Alexander’s legal fees.20
While I focus largely on the art and aesthetics produced by people held in
prisons, my work is in conversation with the larger field of activists, organizers,
and scholars visualizing and working to undo prisons. One of the reasons why it
is crucial to attend to the art practices of the imprisoned is because the carceral
state not only removes people from their homes and neighborhoods; it also shapes
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how prisons and people confined to them are viewed in public life. This power to
reveal and to hide prisons and the imprisoned has an enormous influence on how
the larger public comes to understand the function of the prison and to justify
the removal and incapacitation of millions.
In popular entertainment, journalistic exposés, and documentaries, images of
“life behind bars” fascinate, horrify, and titillate. They also offer a familiarity with
prison as a cornerstone institution of modern life, but one that the majority of
people never enter. The nonincarcerated public comes to recognize prison and
the imprisoned almost exclusively through a set of rehearsed images created by
the state and by nonincarcerated image makers—images like arrest photos, mug
shots, the minimal furnishings of the prison cell, fortress-like walls, barbed wire,
bars, metal doors, and the executioner’s chair. About this familiarity with the visual representation of prisons, Angela Davis writes, “The prison is one of the most
important features of our image environment. This has caused us to take the existence of prisons for granted. The prison has become a key ingredient of our
common sense. It is there, all around us.”21 As Davis suggests, this familiarity
normalizes prisons, and in so doing, these images and the public’s comfort with
them obscure the profound impact of prison on modern life, and especially on
the many millions of lives captured or susceptible to the system. What goes largely
unseen is how incarceration strips away civil rights and transforms the intimate
relations, family connections, social networks, and public lives of those directly
The power of the state to arrest and capture, to make visible and invisible, underscores the significance of visuality as a tool of state authority that structures
who sees and what can be seen.22 Prison thrives on limiting the field of vision of
imprisoned people and the nonincarcerated public, and in many respects those
who work on behalf of the carceral state, though in very different ways. Each is
positioned to see only a fragment of the labyrinthine system. Visual theorist
Nicholas Mirzoeff explains that visuality functions through classifying, separating, and aestheticizing groups “to prevent them from cohering as political
subjects, such as the workers, the people, or the (decolonized) nation.”23 In the
context of prisons, visuality functions to keep the imprisoned stigmatized as
criminals who are excluded from realms of the intimate, social, and political.
Carceral visuality enforces the idea that the primary relationship of people in
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prison is to the punitive state. This reinforcement takes many forms, from photographic indexes to surveillance cameras to guard booths and watchtowers.
Carceral visuality makes incarcerated people both invisible and hypervisible,
but also unseeing and unseen. Public life generally excludes incarcerated people,
but their shadow presence and status as the punished are foundational components to the perception of freedom, access, and mobility in the United States.
Prison art and collaborative art projects between incarcerated people, nonincarcerated artists, and directly impacted communities often call attention to this
power of prisons to structure visibility, recognition, and access to public life for
those locked in and those locked out, even after they have served time.
If incarceration is largely about “systematic social dismantling,” as Sharon Luk
describes it, or “mass elimination,” to use Kelly Lytle Hernández’s framing, the
art collectives and practices among incarcerated artists and with nonincarcerated
peoples provide roadmaps to place-making and community formations that undo
the logic and mandate of prisons.24 In a culture that turns punishment into entertainment, with the proliferation of countless television shows about policing
and prisons, the artistic practices of incarcerated people illuminate visual worlds
that challenge what Michelle Brown calls “penal spectatorship,” a normative
viewing relationship to the criminalized, the detained, and the deportee that legitimates their capture and exclusion.25
Collecting and Exhibiting Prison Art
While the majority of art by incarcerated people remains behind prison walls, in
the past decade there has been a growing interest in prison art and in art projects by nonincarcerated artists that address mass incarceration. Exhibitions and
cultural programs on art made by people in prison and in collaboration with
others have been mounted at several museums and universities. These include
Mirror /Echo /Tilt, at the New Museum (2019); Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System, at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston (2018); Carceral States, at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College in Virginia (2017);
Visions of Confinement: A Lens on Women in the United States Prison System, at
Hunter East Harlem Gallery (2016); On the Inside: A Group Show of LGBTQ Artists
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Who Are Currently Incarcerated, at Abrons Art Center in New York City (2016);
Shared Dining, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2015); and Marking Time: Prison
Art and Activism (2014), which I co-curated with my colleague Sarah Tobias at
Rutgers University, New Brunswick.
Hatched in Prison, an exhibition of art by formerly incarcerated artist Gil Batle at
Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City, is an example of the current interest in
prison art and how prison continues to shape the aesthetics of many artists even
after they have been released. During his incarceration, Batle survived by designing
tattoos, making portraits, and handcrafting greeting
cards that he sold to other prisoners and staff. Since
his release, he has visualized his twenty-year experience in California state prisons through carvings on
ostrich eggshells, using a dentist’s drill to etch out
elaborate scenes of penal settings and narratives of the
juridical processes that capture people. In one tableau,
a judge slams down the gavel as the convicted man
bows his head under the weight of judgment and authority. In another, Batle etches intake items that a
new arrival receives—a roll of toilet paper, a bar of
soap, a comb, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. The majority of his carvings are depictions of imprisoned
people; some are interpretations of mug shots. One
egg displays an image of a sleeping man who had
been involuntarily confined to a psychiatric unit inside prison. Another, called Sanctuary, shows a handcuffed man with officers at his sides guiding him into
the system. Batle reflects here on what prison does to
the prisoner: “Convicts are never free,” whether imprisoned or released, he states.26 One reviewer writes,
“At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject
matter: suicides and stabbing, fights and race riots,
cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of
prison life.”27
Gil Batle, Sanctuary, 2014. Carved ostrich-egg shell,
6.5 × 5 × 5 inches.
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The impact of mass incarceration on the art world extends to philanthropy,
foundations, and grants. In 2017, the New York Times announced that philanthropist Agnes Gund had sold Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 Masterpiece for $150 million to
start a criminal justice initiative, including the Art for Justice Fund, which supports arts-based projects that address decarceration efforts and work to end mass
incarceration.28 The Right of Return Fellowship is an initiative that provides support for formerly incarcerated artists who pursue issues related to mass incarceration and reentry, partly cofounded by formerly incarcerated artists Russell Craig
and Jesse Krimes. The Rauschenberg Foundation and the Soros Foundation offer
social justice grants to support projects on racial justice and mass incarceration.
These initiatives are making apparent links between cultural institutions and
penal institutions.
When I began researching this book, I set out to learn as much as I could about
art-making in prisons. I wanted to learn about access to supplies, where people
made art, what influenced their choices in an environment of little choice, and
how the conditions of the prison shaped their creative practices. I was struck by
the fact that every person I interviewed spoke of how making art created a community and sense of belonging for them. They spoke of making art in captivity
as a relational practice that fostered friendships among incarcerated people, and
sometimes with prison staff and art teachers. They discussed how making art
strengthened connections between incarcerated people and their nonincarcerated
family, loved ones, and personal networks. For some, like Raymond Towler, Ojure
Lutalo, and Ndume Olatushani, art-making connected them to legal advocates and
activists who became involved in getting them released. For the many people I
interviewed who had been in solitary confinement, art-making was crucial to
maintaining a relationship with self, and to creating a subject position that defied the extreme deprivation of isolation units.
Prison art teaches us many things: it shows the relationality of art; it highlights
marginalized populations as producers and collectors of art; and it connects the
artistic experiments in prison to aesthetic currents in the larger art world. In
looking at culture and aesthetics from punitive captivity, from isolation, from torture and no-touch torture, from spaces where people are rendered dead or deadin-waiting as punishment for their very existence, I am preoccupied by the significance of making, of producing, of aesthetic engagement—even for an audience
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of one, even when the artist knows that the work might be confiscated by prison
staff and destroyed, even when the procuring of materials and the appropriating
of space and resources might lead to more punishment. I wonder about the art,
writing, and other creative output by imprisoned people that remain trapped in
prison walls, confiscated, or destroyed by prison staff.
Throughout this book, I highlight the compulsion to make, to create, and to
produce meaning under brutal and austere circumstances in the larger context
of the carceral state. There are lessons here, developed by the punished and imprisoned, about how to create, to forge relations, and to embody and represent
one’s life under unimaginable conditions. From these lessons, we learn about a
society that relies on punitive confinement as a solution to myriad social, economic, political, ecological, and health crises. Prisons—indefinite detention, parole, concentration camps—exist inasmuch as we allow them to.
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