Prison Art

How do people deprived of freedom cope with the overwhelming monotony of prison life? Many turn to handicraft. Some of them make real art. Time is the one element prisoners have in abundance. Materials and tools are another matter however. Even though artistic development classes can be a key means of prisoner re-socialization, penitentiary officials spend hardly any budget on it. So prisoners have to organize everything for themselves. Only the most dedicated persevere.

Most inmates have had nothing to do with handicraft in their civilian lives. They pick it up behind bars out of boredom. Some discover real talents.

But there are also graduates of fine-art universities, professional designers, musicians and writers.

“I had published marine photos all around the world in prestigious magazines. Now I create fish sculptures from medical tongue dispensers” – Krystian.

Drawing and painting are the most popular forms of prison art. Intricately decorated wooden boxes are also one of the oldest forms of artistic expression.

“I draw portraits from photos of girlfriends and wives and exchange them for coffee and tobacco. Other prisoners do this to obtain phone-cards so they can call their loved ones on the outside. But I have no one to call ” – Łukasz.

“I donate all my paintings to charity. In honor of my daughter. She had heart problems and died when she was 4” – Jerzy.

For some prisoners doing handicraft is a way of killing time. For others – it fulfills an inner need to express themselves. For most of them – it’s a form of currency.

Most prison work is distributed among prisoners in exchange for other goods. Some is also bought by prison staff. Little known by society – art created in prison often ends up in charities. Perhaps in some way this helps make up for the prisoners’ bad deeds of the past. Surprisingly most prisoners engaged in art express the problem of a lack of time. Some spend entire days working on pieces. All of them agree that focusing on art allows them to get away from the brutal reality of prison.

“14 years is actually not a long time. You get so used to the rhythm of the prison day it’s actually hard to find time to write a letter to the family” – Daniel.

“I started painting 6 months ago. I have 12 more years to go. I suspect that when I’m finally released I’ll have quite a portfolio to show off” – Jerzy.

“But the younger ones – they don’t want to learn anymore. They’re just interested in drugs and computer games. They’re completely unprepared to go back into societal life” – Marek.

Some long-term prisoners and therapists I talked to agree that 20-30 years ago the scene looked different. In every cell at least one person was doing art. Now there are hardly 5 or 6 people in the entire prison.

“I’ve been working in prisons for 19 years and can see very clearly, that prison art is becoming a thing of the past” – sums up Jan, a prison therapist.

I spent 3 years, visited 37 polish prisons, spoke and photographed 107 inmates to gather the material seen in Prison Art.

Support
  • Scholarchip from the Minister of Culture and National Heritage
  • Patronage of the General Director of Penitentiary Services
The Aftermath

The idea after having finished the project was to organize exhibitions within the prisons. This was meant to give the people from the outside possibility to enter penitentiaries and see the exhibition in places, where the photos were created. And allow prisoners to see, that there is a way to creatively occupy time while serving their sentence.

There were four exhibitions in the following prisons:

  • Warszawa-Mokotów Prison – Premiere – 10.04.2014
  • Prison in Iława – 21.05.2014
  • Prison in Wadowice – 12.06.2014
  • Prison in Kraków – as part of Photo-Fringe – 13.06.2014

Premiere of Prison Art at the Rakowiecka Penitentiary – 2014.04.10
Click image to see more photos