Prisoner Art for Social Change

When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment. Whether an O. Henry authoring his short stories in a jail cell or a frightened young inmate writing his family, a prisoner needs a medium for self-expression.

Thurgood Marshall

Prisoner art, also called jailhouse art, is one type of outsider art. It is art created by those in prison or jail, with little or no formal training or art supervision. These artists often use unusual tools and materials such as Ray Materson unraveling socks and using the yarn to create needlework.

Judith Tannenbaum ‘s Experience with Prisoner Art

Judith Tannenbaum ‘s website [1] talks about prisoner art and experiences of some prisoners.

Judith Tannenbaum is a writer and teacher whose work has focused on community arts and issues of cultural democracy. … Judith has a strong commitment to prisoners and prison issues. She wrote and edited: California’s Arts-in-Corrections’ newsletter, their book-length Manual For Artists Working In Prison, and the Handbook for Arts in the Youth Authority Program. She also completed a feasibility study for arts programming in Minnesota state prisons, and has participated in and chaired many panels on prison arts. She has taught in prisons across the country, and has been keynote speaker and on panels at many conferences on prison and prison arts.

On her blog, she states that

People write me because I taught poetry at San Quentin in the 1980s through California's Arts in Corrections and in many prisons nationally since then. … To get a deep sense of what art-making means to someone inside prison, I suggest reading this op-ed piece by my former student, Spoon Jackson. Spoon is co-author of By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives.

Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC)


PARC is a prison abolitionist group based on Oakland, California committed to exposing and challenging the institutionalized racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and classism of the Prison Industrial Complex.

One of their projects, Prisoner Voices, yielded thousands of letters from prisoners that provide a window into their lives.The letters were personal accounts, essays, poetry, art, and so on. The web site contains the most powerful writings, retyped and unedited. One letter, Prisoner Describes His Torture, shows that prisoner’s experience in pictures he drew.

Excerpts from Prisoner Describes His Torture follow.

These drawings were sent to us from a prisoner who is repeatedly tortured by the guards where he is held in a separate segregation unit. Because he is a convicted sex offender of a child, the guards feel anything they do to him is justified. No one takes into account that this man himself was sexually abused by his own father for at least 7 years when he was a child. This is a classic profile of some sex offenders.
We are not excusing him. We think he needs some serious long time therapy as do most sex offenders. But, we are simply saying that there is never any excuse for torture.
The color drawings on the web site represent his account what happens to him. The words under those drawings are his paraphrasing from the prison manual on cell extraction procedures.


On Prison Reform / Keep fewer behind bars / Offer opportunities for self-rehabilitation

By Spoon Jackson
Published 4:00 am, Friday, July 14, 2006
Op-ed piece referred to by Judith Tannenbaum.

Richard Shelton's prison poetry workshop in Arizona

Judith Tannenbaum also refers to a PBS segment on Richard Shelton's prison poetry workshop in Arizona [2]. You can listen to the podcast at this link
Copyright c/r Judith Tannenbaum
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Ray Materson

Ray Materson is an example of a prison artist. His website [3] states

While serving a 15-year prison sentence for drug-related crimes, he salvaged the thread of worn socks to create miniature tapestries depicting life outside prison walls and used needlepoint to stitch his life back together. Under such conditions, his art was both an escape and an act of courage.

With his wife, Melanie, Materson wrote Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending. The dust jacket of his book (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2002) gives a brief overview of Materson’s life and art:

As a young man, Ray Materson fell from grace and landed a twenty ­ five-year sentence in a maximum security prison. One day, in the depths of despair, he recalled his grandmother sitting on the front porch serenely working her embroidery. Improvising an embroidery hoop and using threads pulled from socks, he fashioned his first piece of needlework. It was a maize-and-blue University of Michigan M in honor of Ray's favorite team, which was playing in the Rose Bowl that year. He found that sewing gave him a sense of accomplishment, an opportunity to exercise his creativity, and, like his grandmother, a feeling of serenity in the worst of circumstances. Soon Ray was creating small needlework emblems and flags for fellow inmates.

Over time, his work became more intricate-miniature masterpieces that told stories from his past and illustrated his dreams or the future. Sins and Needles is the story of how Ray stitched his life back together, and how, through his art, he met the woman he would marry-the woman who would help bring his work to the attention of the world. His is a compelling tale of transformation, recovery, and the power of creativity.

For more information on Ray Materson, refer to these web sites:

Walking on Razor Blades through Stillwater Prison: An Artists's Journey

by Candace McClenahan

Candace McClenahan interviewed William Murray when his work was “featured in the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center exhibit Out of the Abyss: William Murray and the Prison Art Project, from April 12 through May 17, 2013. “ [4]
In the interview, McClenahan wrote

But shortly after, in 1974, at the age of 26, [Murray] turned away from the more traditional career path he could have followed. Instead, he walked into Stillwater Prison-initially as a volunteer and three years later as the first state-employed art teacher in the country to create an art program for inmates in Minnesota’s largest close-security, level four institution for adult male felons-current population: 1,604. It was a choice that would change not only his life but the lives of some of Stillwater’s most hardened criminals for the next 29 years.

Art of Martín Ramírez

Martín Ramírez (1895–1963), was a Mexican outsider artist who spent most of his adult life institutionalized in a California mental hospital (he had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic). He developed an elaborate iconography featuring repeating shapes mixed with images of trains and Mexican folk figures.
The Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) had an exhibit of Martín Ramírez’s art October 6, 2007–January 13, 2008. The following information is taken from MAM’s website [5]:

Martín Ramírez (1895–1963) left his native Mexico in 1925 with the aim of finding work in the United States and supporting his wife and children back home in Jalisco. Political and religious struggles in Mexico that directly affected the welfare of his family, as well as the economic consequences of the Great Depression, left him homeless and without work on the streets in northern California in 1931. Unable to communicate in English and apparently confused, he was soon picked up by the police and committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he would eventually be diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. Ramírez spent the second half of his life in a succession of mental institutions in California.
During those thirty-two years, Ramírez hardly spoke to anyone. However, sometime in the mid-1930s, he began to draw. In the early 1950s, Tarmo Pasto, a visiting professor of psychology and art at Sacramento State University, saw some of Ramírez’s drawings in the ward at DeWitt State Hospital and recognized their singular artistic value. Pasto not only made Ramírez a subject of his research into mental illness and creativity but also started to supply him with materials, collect his drawings, and, by organizing public exhibitions, introduce his artwork to the public.

According to the website of The Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art [6], "initially Ramirez created his art with a pencil that was allotted by hospital staff. He used scraps of paper, at times glued together with a variety of substances, including mashed potatoes, bread, water, and saliva."

For additional information, go to Outsider Art for Social Change.

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