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Rethinking incarceration through the lens of art

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MARCH 23, 2023

It’s easy to turn our attention away from the incarcerated: those we believe are guilty of breaking the law or those who cannot provide bail if questioned by the law. And yet, many citizens returning to a free society are thriving, despite the side glances and judgments.

In 2016, the philanthropist Agnes Gund used $100 million from the sale of her Roy Lichtenstein painting “Masterpiece” to seed the Art for Justice Fund. The purpose of the fund is to bring forth awareness about and put an end to mass incarceration. And Agnes has been succeeding in realizing that vision. Since its inception, the Art for Justice Fund has awarded over 300 grants across 169 grantees totaling more than $105 million. Many of those grantees have gone on to help others, such as Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig.

Jesse Krimes served a six-year sentence for drug trafficking after his initial sentence was increased fivefold. He was placed in solitary confinement for over a year because he wouldn’t provide the district attorney with the names of others implicated in his crime. The artist has stated that he decided to choose his dignity over his freedom by accepting his punishment without involving others. During his time in “the hole,” as solitary confinement is frequently called, Krimes created numerous works of art that examine contemporary society and the power dynamic that exists in it, especially concerning disenfranchised communities and people of color. Upon his release, the artist went on to become nationally acclaimed, as portrayed in the film “Art & Krimes,” currently available on Amazon Prime and Paramount+.

Russell Craig is an artist from Philadelphia who taught himself to create art while serving a nonviolent drug offense. In his art, Craig uses his experience of being a Black man facing a systematic oppressive system that criminalizes people of color. He reflects on police brutality and mass incarceration. Since his release in 2013, Craig has continued collaborating as a muralist, teacher to court-involved youth and advocate for the Philadelphia Mural Arts. Krimes and Craig, recipients of the Art for Justice Fund, created the Right of Return Fellowship that supports formerly incarcerated artists. The alumni from their organization have been awarded Guggenheim Fellowships, the MacArthur Genius grant, Creative Capital awards and Art for Justice grants, to name a few.

These individuals were born to less-than-ideal circumstances and, rather than being provided with support, were locked away with a punitive intent that rarely rehabilitates. This is a ubiquitous pattern in today’s mass incarceration system. The United States is the leader in locking up more people per capita than any other nation, with more than 1.8 million individuals locked up. Furthermore, we also have one of the highest rates of recidivism, with 76.6% of individuals being rearrested within five years compared to Norway’s rate of 20%. 

Unlike the punitive response in the United States, Norway has a rehabilitative system that views an individual as a human who made a mistake versus someone who is reduced to a number in an orange jumpsuit. The Nordic country views those who have broken the law as citizens who will reintegrate into society, possibly as neighbors. Incarcerated individuals are placed in facilities close to their homes so they can be supported and maintain connections with family and their community.

Many Norwegian prisons feature a family visiting center, recording and art studios and holistic offerings such as therapy and yoga. Guards, who carry pepper spray rather than guns, frequently interact with prisoners, playing sports and eating together, allowing for conversation and understanding.

So what might our world look like if we supported our incarcerated population in the same manner as Norway? If we provided art therapy and training and community support to those on the inside rather than breaking them down and confiscating their healing art supplies? If we follow the path paved by people such as Gund, we could examine how art can be used not only for pleasing aesthetics but also as a means of activism.

Not all of us are born on an even playing field, yet despite that reality, people survive their circumstances. Artists such as Krimes and Craig and others such as Jared Owens, James “Yaya” Hough, and Tameca Cole, have been featured in the Marking Time exhibit that has traveled to multiple museums and spaces. These artists are defying the odds and making a career out of telling the stories of incarceration. Instead of wondering what they have done, or blaming them for the past they survived, let us praise the obstacles they have overcome despite the overwhelming odds. Let us let them make their struggles art

Tamara White, Ph.D. is the Founder and Board President of Bader + Simon Gallery

MARCH 23, 2023