e-mail us

Cover story

Prison Creations

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In some ways, Tom Baxter was the honored alumnus asked to return to give the main address. Only in his case, the school was prison, and the event was the opening of the Michigan Prison Creative Art Project’s fifth annual prisoner art exhibit.

This was the first time Baxter was not participating in the show as an artist, and the first year he could attend the exhibit. He was released from prison eight months ago after more than 10 years inside.

The exhibit, Feb. 8-23 at the Rackham Galleries at the University of Michigan, was the public expression of a program that has bucked a growing national sentiment toward harsher sentencing and treatment of convicts. Programs like the art project are running into growing opposition in the Michigan legislature and from prison personnel who see that such activities are running contrary to the aim of imprisonment.

‘Our fellow citizens’

“In prison, [art] was a way to escape the harsh realities, because I paint landscapes, warm-feeling type landscapes and positive type things,” said Baxter, “and it was a way to escape all the negativities you hear everyday from both the other prisoners and the guards. It was a way to release the hostilities and absorb myself into my art.”

More than 200 works of art by 118 prison artists in 35 Michigan prisons were displayed during this year’s exhibit. The exhibit has grown every year since the first show in 1996. It now runs for two weeks and includes a variety of speakers and workshops, including a demonstration and discussion on prison theater practice, a reading by Bell Chevigny, editor of Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, as well as discussions on the death penalty, parole issues and legal services for prisoners with children.

Baxter agreed to speak at the event because, he said, “it was a chance to educate, to tell the public that there are people in prison that have worth and talent and something to say — to try to break down the stereotypes.”

Prison rule in Michigan barred access to interview inmates who had participated in the art show.

For University of Michigan art professor and prison art project volunteer teacher, Ann Savageau, challenging stereotypes is an important aspect of the annual show. “It shows the public that people in prisons are not different from ourselves. They are ourselves. They’re our fellow citizens. Their stories, personalities, dreams and aspirations are as varied as anybody’s on the outside.”

This is a first step, says Savageau, in changing attitudes. “You can only be punitive when you see the person who is in prison as being other than you are, and you can only have compassion for people when you see them as being similar to you.”

In addition to the annual exhibit, the Prison Creative Art Project offers theater, writing and art workshops in prisons throughout the state. The project was founded in 1990 by Buzz Alexander, also a University of Michigan professor. The first workshops were in theater. Writing and visual arts workshops were added as the project evolved and began to attract more volunteer instructors with diverse interests.

In 1996 University of Michigan professor and artist Janie Paul had the idea to try a prison art exhibit. “I’ve always been involved in trying to make art accessible to people who are marginalized or who don’t think of themselves as artists,” said Paul, who was involved in art projects with inner-city children and with patients in a psychiatric hospital in New York before moving to Michigan.

“Art is a basic human need and something that everyone should have experience with,” said Paul. “Some people are excluded from having that experience because our educational system doesn’t provide it or because they are marginalized in some way.” Paul also teaches a community service art class at the university in which art students become art teachers in the prison workshops.

Alexander, the art project’s founder, said that prison officials are generally supportive of the programs. “We are highly disciplined when we go into prisons,” he said. All art program instructors, who currently number over 40, must go through extensive training before they begin teaching. “We are very clear that we are obeying every rule and regulation of the prison,” said Alexander. “We are respectful of everyone there, prisoners and staff alike, and they’re always very responsive. We’re friendly, polite. We bring a good spirit into the prison with us. That is generally very appreciated by the prisoners and the staff, whose jobs are not easy.”

‘Good for security’

Beth Tuckerman, corrections program coordinator at Adrian [Mich.] Temporary Facility, where the art program has both theater and writing programs, agrees. “Anything we can do to keep the guys busy and keep them occupied is always good for safety and security,” she said. “If we didn’t have activities for these guys to do, it would make the jobs of the corrections officers much more difficult.”

There are those among Michigan’s lawmakers, however, who would like to see such programs ended. The political atmosphere in Michigan is increasingly punitive toward its nearly 45,000 prisoners. Michigan has passed several laws in recent years increasing prison sentences and reducing the possibility of parole. One of the most controversial and hard-line of those laws is the 650/lifer law, which dictates a mandatory life sentence with no possibility of parole for anyone convicted of possession of 650 or more grams of cocaine or heroine. That law was recently softened to allow some possibility of parole, but the restrictive climate shows no sign of abating.

Prison administrators “are attempting to have more control of our content,” said Alexander, “probably because of pressure from conservative legislators, who don’t want programs.”

But no dancing

In addition to the theater, writing and art workshops, the program formerly offered dance workshops in one facility, until prison administrators suspended them, citing security concerns stemming from the possibility of inmates touching. Alexander wrote a letter assuring prison officials the type of dance used in the program did not include touch, but prison administrators refused to yield or to give any further explanation. “Dance is a lot of movement,” said Alexander. “It’s very expressive, very free. In some way it runs contrary to confinement.”

The Prison Creative Art Program recently produced its 100th play in Michigan prisons. The project has now produced a total of 104 plays in 16 state prisons, many of them in women’s facilities. The plays are performed for audiences of over 200 prisoners and a few guests. “All of the plays, except two, have been collective creations by the women or men” in the workshop, said Alexander.

“The way we work is through improvisation. We never have a script. It’s improvised right up to the end,” with the exception of one case, in which prison officials insisted on seeing a script, he said.

“The themes are extremely positive,” said Alexander. “Somebody gets out of prison and struggles to make good, or a community that’s having troubles or a family that’s having troubles and the play moves toward reconstitution. That’s a very important theme for people. It’s very affirmative. A play might be about how to get out of a gang, things like that. It’s wonderful where they get to and what they offer other prisoners.”

While the purpose of the workshops is “to give people a chance to grow through creation,” Alexander also gets a lot out of them. He loves to teach, and teaching in the prisons is one of the best experiences he has had. “Prisoners are on the whole better students,” he said. “They’re hungry for learning. They’re very eager, vital and energetic. They engage at a level that in most classes at the university doesn’t happen. The people who choose to take the workshops are hungry for knowledge and hungry to use their time in a different way. I’m a lucky teacher. I get great students. There are extremely talented musicians, dancers, actors, writers and artists in prison. It’s remarkable to work with these people.”

Paul, too, gets a lot out of her prison workshops. “It’s inspiring to see art being produced in an extreme situation because it kind of makes you see what art really is. You see the power of the human spirit coming through in a situation where people are really desperate to find some means of expression,” she said.

For Savageau, teaching in the prisons is a type of ministry. “I think running a workshop with people who are so marginalized is really a way of putting the gospel into practice,” she said. “Visiting the prisons is what Jesus taught us to do.”

Savageau originally agreed to teach for only one month during the summer. Paul asked her to take over a workshop run by students during the school year, at the request of the prisoners, who didn’t want to go the entire summer without art. But Savageau ended up teaching the whole summer and then became a regular instructor.

“I really didn’t know what to expect when I went into the prison,” said Savageau. “I didn’t know how I would be received and what the interactions would be like. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised at the warm reception we get and the warm interactions. They are very polite and respectful to us, so those things have all made the experience a very positive one.”

Baxter believes the positive interaction with people from the outside is an important benefit of the programs. “It shows that there are people out there in society who actually do care about what’s going on inside. A lot of these guys are really good people. They’ve done something wrong, but they’re still really good people. They still have worth, and [the instructors] are recognizing that. It’s a lonely place in there, and a little improvement means a lot.”

Preparing for life outside

According to Alexander, programs like the Prison Creative Art Program can help prepare people for life outside. “There’s definite evidence that higher education in prison puts the recidivism rate way down,” he said. “It’s helpful to people who want to stay out.”

Baxter agreed. “It has motivated me to pursue an art career,” he said. “Before it was just something I did when I was in prison to make a little extra money. Just being accepted into the show and being judged was part of the experience. It was a good motivator and something I probably wouldn’t have pursued otherwise.”

“The show has had a pretty tremendous effect on the artists in prison,” said Paul. “You can see the growth and development of the artists. A lot of them really work all year for the show.”

Part of the art program’s mission is to raise awareness about prison issues in general. “We’ve incarcerated over 2 million people in this country,” said Alexander. “That’s a higher percentage of our population than any other country. That shouldn’t be in a country like ours, which is so affluent. I believe it’s a policy and practice that needs to be changed. It feels wrong to me, and I’d like to be part of what turns it around.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000