You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘prison art’ tag.

su

Site Unseen: Incarceration flyer. Featuring the work of Jack L. Morris, a California prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for almost 25 years.

Do artworks made on opposite sides of prison walls work together in a gallery space?

Yesterday, at the Los Angeles Valley College, in Valley Glen, CA the exhibition Site Unseen: Incarceration came down form the walls. It was an exhibition bringing together prisoner-made art with artworks made by outside artists about prisons. (Catalogue in PDF, here)

Some artists I knew — Alyse Emdur, Anthony Friedkin, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Mark Strandquist, and Margaret Stratton. Others are new to me — Robert V. Montenegro, Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes, Robert Stockton and David Earl Williams.

Shamefully, all those names with which I am unfamiliar I quickly learnt are prisoners. Why shame? Well, it’s all about consistency. I value activism that is built upon close alliance with, and information, from prisoners. There are no better experts on the system than those subject to it. At the very least, I should know and support the leading Prison Artists.

However, when it comes to painting and illustration, I have adopted lazy double standards. Without examination, I have demoted prisoner made art — commonly referred to by the catch all “Prison Art” — to an inferior status. I have prejudged most Prison Art. For my own comfort, I have bracketed Prison Art as naive and limited. I’ve conveniently focused on scarcity of supplies inside prison of prison to cursorily explain the lo-fi aesthetic of Prison Art.

My “logic” blinded me to the invention, resourcefulness and resistance inherent to almost all prison art. Hell, we’ve got prisoners making work out of M&Ms.

Site Unseen: Incarceration, therefore, is a nice kick back in the right direction. If we don’t have prisoners’ own artwork upon which to meditate then we lose site of the issues fast. As much as I have championed the work of Emdur, Ross, Strandquist and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, I want to now celebrate the works of Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes and David Earl Williams.

I wish also to applaud Sheila Pinkel for bringing together inside and outside, and for committing the oppressed and their allies to one another upon gallery walls.

Pinkel 2000

Sheila Pinkel. Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (2014). 7’ x 14’ Archival ink jet prints. Pinkel remarks, “Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration includes the major laws that have resulted in the expansion of the prison system, the Sentencing Reform Act (1984), Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Law (1986) and Three Strikes Law (1994). It is important to note that in the 1960s, during the civil rights era, rate of incarceration was declining as people adopted the ‘rehabilitation not incarceration’ attitude. However, after the Rockefeller Drug Laws took hold, incarceration in the United States began to grow exponentially. Also included is demographic information about the high rate of incarceration of non-white people and women, the great number of people being held in solitary confinement and the massive amounts of money being made by investors in the prison industrial complex. The backdrop for the graph is a set of images from U.S. history taken in the 19th and 20th centuries that reflect the treatment of minorities and prisoners. The poor, non-white and uneducated make up the majority of incarcerated today.

Origins of the Show

In 2004, Pinkel exhibited for the first time her mammoth work Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (above). While the shared title between this catalyst work and the exhibition confuses matters a little, it demonstrates the degree to which Pinkel is bound to prison reform. Passion + politics is usually a good recipe for art.

Pinkel’s motivations for mounting the show are many — concerns for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case; an awareness of slavery (past and present); the doctrines of ownership and manifest destiny; sensitivity to the quiet traditions of aboriginal people; a raised consciousness toward the unparalleled use of torturous solitary confinement; and the profit making industries of the prison industrial complex; and more besides.

The urgent issues within the reform and abolitionist movements are so great that often they can drown each other out, or obscure one another. Perhaps, that is where silent 2D artworks come to play their part. Perhaps, a gallery space in which viewers can mediate their own responses is a hushed but vital contribution to the reform debate?

David Earl Williams 2000

David Earl Williams. Parrots (1996). 22” x 28” Ball point pen.

It is helpful for me to interrogate the idea that gallery shows and art have an effect upon political realities. I make a conscious effort to justify my workand others’ and to continually ask if analysing images and creative output from prisons changes the daily experience of the United States’ 2.3 million prisoners.

I conclude, often, that conscientious and intellectually honest analysis of images from prisons plays its role in the wider discussion needed to drag us out of this prison crisis.

Prison Sketches in the Absence of Prison Photos

Undoubtedly, in the past few years, solitary confinement has emerged as one of the main, digestible and terrifying issues behind which reformers could win arguments, gain traction and mindshare. The public now know that 80,000 people on any given day are subject to psychological torture within our prisons.

Many of the photographs of Supermax and solitary units — and there are not many — have come about because of court ordered entry to facilities. With the exception of Social Practice make-believe, artists and photographers have, for the most part, failed to image these dark, hidden spaces for the public. I’m apportioning no blame here, just pointing out fact. With that understanding, then, it is significant that the majority of prison artists in Site Unseen are either in solitary or on death row.

Murdock 2000

Brendan Murdock. Tower (2012). 9” x 12” Linoleum cut print.

One of the artists in Site Unseen is Jack L. Morris, a creative spirit with whom Pinkel has had a lasting personal and professional relationship. In 2011, Pinkel began corresponding with Morris. At that point, he’d been incarcerated for 31 years. In 1978, aged 18, Morris was sentenced to a 15 years to life for being an accomplice to a murder. When the California Department of Corrections (CDCr) opened Pelican Bay Sate Prison (the first state-run Supermax in the nation) in 1989, Morris was transferred. He’s been in solitary confinement since.

“During this time he has not seen sunlight or touched another person,” says Pinkel.

Morris Turtle 2000 copy

Jack L. Morris. Turtle (2012). Dimensions: 12” x 12” Medium: pen, pencil, peanut butter oil, pastel color.

Pinkel points out that the decision-making power to place someone in solitary is solely in the hands of the correctional officers. Checks and balances against abuse in this ‘Us vs. Them’ equation are largely absent. Pinkel believes that Morris, like many prisoners in the SHU, is subject to a Kafkaesque situation in which solitary is inescapable. While policies are shifting after attention from Sacramento politicians, it remains incredibly difficult to get out of the SHU if CDCr has classed you as a gang member.

“Jack has not been involved in gang activity and has had no ability to be involved in it since he has been in solitary. However, he is repeatedly denied release from solitary and has had his designation increased to active gang affiliation,” says Pinkel. “At the moment, there is no legal way for him to get out and, to my mind, there is no good being served by his continued incarceration, either in solitary or in prison at all.”

0833_PrisonLandscapes_ins.55.indd

Alyse Emdur. Anonymous backdrop painted in New York State Correctional Facility Woodburn (2012). Dimensions:42” x 52” Inkjet print.

Clearly, Pinkel has an affiliation. Put that aside though and consider Morris for his work and you can’t help but be impressed. In order to prevent himself “losing his mind”, Morris created poems, drawing and letters. Pinkel published them in the book The World of Jack L. Morris: From the SHU.

“Together,” says Pinkel, “they form a complex picture of a talented person who believed most of his life that he was not intelligent.”

And so we arrive here. At Morris’ and other art from inside. To be mesmerised by the intricacy of the work is understandable, but more-so we should be quietly and slowly scrutinising the work and using it as a gateway to a psychology we must surely hope we, or any of our loved ones, ever come to know.

Prison illustrations work very similarly to photographs in some ways, in that tropes recur and we find ourselves glossing over them. We presume that the system gives rise to them same type of images of flora, fauna, cars, tattoo-inspired designs, versions of women, motorcycles, sad clowns, tears and blood. These things are prevalent, but individual touches exist in the gaps and it is there we may identify the individual artist.

Rameriz 2000

Gabriel Ramirez. De Profundis … Dreams (Before 2007). 11.5” x 15” Medium: Pencil on manilla envelope.

The worst thing prison art and photography, alike, can be is misunderstood as aesthetic cliche and used as excuse to bypass the social conditions from which they arise. Prisoner art from solitary is the most reliable source of imagery on which we can rely to learn about extreme confinement. We just need to give it space to percolate. A gallery can do that.

There’s a perverse clash of time appreciation at work in order for prison art to have an effect. The artist labors for days and weeks on a single piece and goes to great lengths to deliver it outside the institution. On the outside, we’re spoilt for images and it’s almost luck or strange happenstance for us to spend more than a few seconds with an image. But, it is possible and a gallery can do that.

Strandquist 2000

Mark Strandquist. Windows From Prison (2014). Banners 5’ x 11’. Digital prints on vinyl.

Strange Brew

As might evident, I am largely in support of Site Unseen. However, looking over the catalogue, I am a bit skeptical toward the mix of works. Does Mark Strandquist’s work (above) that relies heavily on public education and engagement work when he cannot transform the gallery into a workshop space or collaborate with local reform groups? Are we getting to the point that a prison show cannot exist without the work of Richard Ross!? (I’m friends with Richard and had breakfast with him this morning; he won’t mind the snark). It just seems Ross might be an easy option.

Ross 2000

Is Site Unseen a prison art show supported by outside sympathisers, some of whom happen to be artists? Or is it a genuine attempt to level the field and present artists inside and outside as equivalents? The latter is a tough proposition. I have seen it done though. The Cell and the Sanctuary (Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History) managed to knit insider and outsider artists works together, but they managed it effectively because they were all either students or faculty in the William James Association’s Arts In Corrections program at San Quentin. A visual thread ran through The Cell and the Sanctuary that is not as immediately apparent in Site Unseen.

Stratton Passenger Log Ellis Island2000

Margaret Stratton. Ship’s Passenger Log, December 1916, Ellis Island, New York City, June 29, 1999, 10:35 a.m. (1999). 16” x 20”. Archival digital print.

The main culprit, for me, is the work of Margaret Stratton (above). I’ve constantly wondered what use have images of decaying/ abandoned prisons for connecting us to pressing contemporary prison issues. I can find value in most other works in Site Unseen as they’ve a clear umbilical cord to the tumorous, pulsing Prison Industrial Complex. We can sense the toxic bile of the system in the majority of the works. We can wonder at the ability to stay sane and creative from within such a system. I get none of that awe from Stratton’s work.

I understand Stratton’s B&W images employ a different route to the issue and I don’t want to suggest there’s any inherent flaw in the work or its tactics. The fault, if any, lies with the decision to include this type of work that I identify as an outlier within the collected works.

Friedkin 2000

Four Convicts, Folsom Prison, CA (1991). Dimensions: 11” x 14” Black and white gelatin silver print.

Another , but slightly less obvious, outlier is Anthony Friedkin’s photo of four Folsom prisoners in the early 90s. It is a captivating portrait for sure (one that I featured very early on Prison Photography) but it is hardly representative — of either recent photographs from prisons, or the U.S. prison population as a whole. Friedkin is best known for his illuminating access into, and photographs of, gay culture in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His respectful treatment of these derided communities was light years ahead of mainstream political consciousness. Friedkin lived among the LGBQT community and the intimacy and support shows through in his work.

I cannot think that Friedkin had a mere fraction of that sort of access to the prison population. I suspect he made his image above on a single visit to Folsom Prison. I have not seen any other photographs from prison by Friedkin. And so, this image, is neither representative of Friedkin’s work. It is ham, distant and reliant on the tropes of prison cliche. Not only is it out of place, it is out of time.

Reyes 2000

Gabriel Reyes. Like a Hook (Before 2007). 8.5” x 11”, Ball point pen on paper.

As far as I am concerned, any and all mentions of Alyse Emdur’s Prison Landscapes and the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s performances (below) are absolutely essential and cannot be reiterated enough. Each are powerful statements on the nature of power and the over-reach of state control.

LAPD’s dramatisations are informed by the experiences of people who have been incarcerated and Emdur’s collected portraits and large format photos of prison visiting room backdrops originate from a keen engagements with the visual logic of carceral systems.

Stockton Fight Back 2000

Robert Stockton. Fight (Before 2007): 8.5” x 11”. Pen, additional color.

Prisons and criminal justice reform are gaining attention in the news and public consciousness (a good thing), but just because the conversation is being had and the appetite for a show like Site Unseen might be more ready, the challenging logistics of putting together a curated show of this kind remain unchanged. Kudos to Pinkel for bringing togther artists from inside and outside prison invested in the same goal of making the U.S. a less dangerous, punitive and misunderstood place.

At first glance, the mix of ‘prison art’ on one hand and ‘art made about prisons’ on the other might appear incongruous, but that attitude is exposed as flawed very quickly. As the majority of works in Site Unseen emerge as responses to this country’s brutal, class-dividing prison system, I must conclude that they can do nothing but work together. And so must we if we’re to scale back on decades of fear, bad law and failed policy. If you need resolve and fire-in-your-belly for the task then merely look to the work of those who are subject to confinement. You’ll find it, quietly roaring, there.

Goodman, Ronnie1

© Ronnie Goodman

ARTS AND RECIDIVISM

“Evidence suggests that arts-in-prisons programs lower recidivism (returning to prisons) by 27% and reduce disciplinary actions by 75%,” reads the press release for the prison art exhibition The Cell and the Sanctuary: Art and Incarceration currently on show at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (SCMAH).

That’s a bold claim.

One of the great difficulties with justifying arts and/or liberal arts education is the difficulty in measuring its direct (positive) effects. Evaluation in budget-constrained prison systems is especially demanding and cynical. First and foremost, people want to know if any type of program steers a prisoner away from anti-social behaviour. If the answer is complex, partly elusive or complicated by other criteria then doubt descends, the enterprise is labeled as airy-fairy, and premise is dismissed.

In brief, prison arts programs wanting to prove themselves have a tough audience.

The effects of arts and education is difficult to track because many benefits such as relative thinking, critical engagement outside of institutional narratives, cumulative learning, etc. take years. Education is a slow build. Benefits are for years down the line; for a lifetime. Also, many prisoners are on long sentences and the primary criteria corrections departments and researchers look to – recidivism – can only be measured once a prisoner is released. The intangibles of a liberal arts education aren’t necessarily contributing to a measurable impact the next hour.

A general aura of skepticism surrounding arts and liberal arts education is compounded by the fact that research money often goes toward other prison programming (vocational, prison industries) and other evaluation first. We saw this was the case when the State of California stripped the DOC of its Arts-In-Corrections funding 7-years ago. In times of crisis, arts funding is first on the chopping block.

Despite no state funding, groups such as the William James Association continued, driven by volunteer efforts. The recent California budget has put millions back into the coffers earmarked for Arts-In-Corrections. The William James Association has returned to work in 11 state prisons.

The return was helped by the convincing results of a study, California Prison Arts Evaluation 2014, that was commissioned jointly by the William James Association and the California Lawyers for the Arts. You can download it here.

Here’s the results of the study and reason for bold claims.

The California Prison Arts Evaluation 2014 was a one-year study in four prisons revealing that arts programs improve prisoners’ behavior and their attitudes about themselves.

“A significant majority of  inmates attribute their greater confidence and self-discipline to pursue other academic and vocational opportunities to their participation in arts programs, signaling a pathway for overall personal growth,” says the William James Association.

 A BRIEF HISTORY OF RESEARCH

The author was Dr. Lawrence Brewster of the University of San Francisco who had, in 2012, completed a Qualitative Study of the California Arts In Corrections Program.

Prior to these two studies, there had been little research since a cost-benefit study in 1983, An Evaluation of the Arts-in-Corrections Program of the California Department of Corrections (also conducted by Brewster), which posited that society and the institutions benefited by reduced disciplinary actions, community service and beautification of the prisons.

It was high time someone brought the research up to date and dampened down naysayers and skeptics. Hopefully, the California Prison Arts Evaluation 2014 might spur other states to make a return to arts programming.

“Arts-in-prisons programs improve relationships between people within the prison as well as with guards and supervisory staff,” says the William James Association.” Prisoners exposed to arts programs are more likely to adjust to life outside prison and are less likely to become repeat offenders.”

Scan 1

‘Blind Curve’ (2010) © Felix Lucero

Goodman, Ronnie - Lower Yard

‘Lower Yard, San Quentin’ @ Ronnie Goodman

Goodman, Ronnie - Baseball at old Folsom Prison

‘Baseball at Old Folsom Prison’ @ Ronnie Goodman

Evans, Justus

© Justus Evans

Kissman, Rolf - Obscuring_Self_body

‘Obscuring Self’ © Rolf Kissman

Goodman, Ronnie - Life As Lived- Jazz at San Quentin

‘Jazz In San Quentin’ @ Ronnie Goodman

Goodman, Ronnie - UpHill Struggle

‘Uphill Struggle’ @ Ronnie Goodman

SC2

The Cell & The Sanctuary opening, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, November 7th, 2014. Photo: Laurie Brooks / William James Association

Goodman, Ronnie - Prison Boots (2008)

‘Prison Boots’ @ Ronnie Goodman

SC3

Installation view of The Cell & The Sanctuary, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Photo: Laurie Brooks / William James Association

Santa Cruz

THE CELL AND THE SANCTUARY

The Cell and The Sanctuary features paintings, drawings, sculptures and writings by teachers, artists and organizations who are “working together within the prison system to provide a direct link between incarcerated individuals and something larger than their dehumanizing cells,” says SCMAH.

Artists including Ronnie Goodman, Justus Evans, Felix Lucero and Rolf Kissman (whose works are included in this post) are in the exhibition, as well as Ned Axthelm, Peter Bergne, Guillermo Willie, Stan Bey, Khalifah Christensen, Dennis Crookes, Isiah Daniels, Bruce Fowler, Henry Frank, Roy Gilstrap, Thomas Grider, Gary Harrell, Amy M. Ho, John Hoskings, David Johnson, Ben Jones, Richard Kamler, Chung Kao, Darryl Kennedy, Katya McCollah, Pat Messy, Omid Mokri, Gerald Morgan, Carol Newborg, Stan Newborg, James Norton, Eric “Phil” Phillips, Anthony Marco Ramirez, Adrienne Skye Roberts, Mark Stanley, Fred Tinsley, Tan Tran, Kurt Von Staden, Geno Washington, Michael Williams, Thomas Winfrey, and Noah Wright

The Cell and the Sanctuary: Art and Incarceration is produced in collaboration with Barrios Unidos and the William James Association (also on Facebook)

It is on show November 7, 2014 – February 22, 2015

Lucero, Felix -Senseless

Senseless © Felix Lucero

VOI1

I’m not the only one putting up a show (Prison Obscura) of imagery made in and about prisons. The Laband Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles opens its Voices Of Incarceration exhibition on Saturday 25th January.

It’s an interesting line up of artists that includes artists who are imprisoned and individuals on the outside who are making art about prisons. Laband says:

“Both groups bring to light the emotional costs and injustices of the Prison Industrial Complex. Voices of Incarceration also explores the rehabilitative arts programs in California prisons and the expression of the imprisoned artists’ strength and individuality through the creative process.”

KPCC, the Los Angeles NPR-affiliate has done a couple of programs recently about the small but important attempts to reintroudce arts education into California prisons:

Making Art in Prison

Efforts Emerging to Bring Arts Back to California Prisons

If you’re in L.A., go check it out. It’s open until the 16th March. One last note — it’s great to see in the mix Prison Photography favourites Alyse Emdur, Richard Ross, Michal Chelbin and Sheila Pinkel.

VOI2

Erika Schultz

Student of Univeristy Beyond Bars, Monroe Correctional Complex, 2011 © Erika Schultz

IF YOU ARE IN SEATTLE …

Opening on Saturday, 20th July is Prison Art an art auction fundraiser for University Beyond Bars (UBB), the prison education I worked with from 2009-2011.

Accompanying Prison Art is a photography component I was invited to curate. Titled Portraits and Pixels: Photography in Washington State Prisons the exhibition features five photographers working in Washington State and making images of Washington State lockdowns.

AND IT’S IN A BREWERY!

ART BEYOND BARS

At Washington State Reformatory, students in a Studio Art class, sponsored by the nonprofit organization University Beyond Bars and led by long-term prisoner-artist Gary Thomas, have created oil, acrylic, and gouache paintings as well as pencil and ink drawings in styles that range from the political to the retro, from the kitsch to the abstract.

You can see a local KING 5 newschannel spot on Gary and the class, here. (Turn the sound down to avoid the over-zealous sound-editing use of cliche clanging doors and locks!)

80 pieces feature in the Prison Art show ranging from nearly pocket-sized to large triptych paintings. All are for sale and proceeds go toward paying for the college education of UBB students. The silent auction lasts two weeks.

‘Portraits and Pixels: Photography in Washington State Prisons’

Young mothers, critical thinkers and children making powerful art may not be the first types of people we’d expect to find behind bars, but Portraits and Pixels challenges our notions of who is behind bars in the Evergreen State.

Portraits and Pixels: Photography in Washington State Prisons brings together images by five established local photographers to provide an overview of arts, rehabilitation and security in Washington State’s lockdowns.

Bettina Hansen, a Seattle Times photojournalist since 2012, photographed the theater productions at Monroe Correctional Complex. In 2011, Erika Schultz, also of the Seattle Times, volunteered her skills and made portraits of students in the UBB art program at Monroe. Tim Matsui, a Seattle-based multimedia journalist, casts a light on the Youth Art Program at the Denney Juvenile Detention Center in Everett. In the early 2000s, Steve Davis led workshops in four Washington State juvenile detention centers producing pinhole camera photographs and narrative-rich images with the children. Davis also made formal portraits of the boys and girls. Nurse-midwife, Cheryl Hanna-Truscott has made dignified and quiet double-portraits of incarcerated mothers with their newborns at the Residential Parenting Program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. The pioneering program is nationally recognized for its commitment to maintain ties between mother and baby by means of rigorous administration, family and volunteer efforts.

The exhibition will be open to the public from July 21 until August 10 during the brewery hours: Fri-Sun 3-7 pm.

OPENING NIGHT, July 20th, 7:30 – 10 pm

Prison Art is hosted by Machine House Brewery, at 5840 Airport Way S in Georgetown, just south of Seattle.

Tickets are available here. Tickets are $15 each, or two for $25.

There will be live music by singer-songwriter Lori Dreier, cellist Ed Tellman, and keyboard artist and former prisoner Dan Pens.

Facebook event page here.

IMAGES

SteveDavis

© Steve Davis

Bettina Hasnsen Prison Theatre

Daemond Arrindell, teaching artist for Freehold Theatre’s Engaged Theatre program, gives words of encouragement to inmate Ted Cherry after a rehearsal at Monroe Correctional Complex April 17, 2013. “They are the most appreciative population we’ve ever worked with,” said Arrindell, who is a local poet and community organizer known for running various writing and performance workshops and the Seattle Poetry Slam. “They recognize what limited opportunities they have.” © Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times

Tim Matsui

Cell Denney Juvenile Detention Center in Everett. © Tim Matsui

Mother and child in the Residential Parenting Program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. © Cheryl Hanna-Truscott

Prison Art Seattle

In the kitchen of his Brooklyn home, Ruiz flicks through his “portfolio” of prison images.

Stefan Ruiz has made photographs inside San Quentin State Prison, Soledad Prison and the notorious maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison. His photography from within California’s prisons was not accomplished by conventional methods; at no time was Ruiz on press assignment; making documentary work or running a photography workshop.

Ruiz worked for seven years as an art instructor at San Quentin, during which time he regularly made photographic records of individual artworks. He took some portraits of his students on the side. He got inside Pelican Bay as a court-appointed photographer making photographs for use as trial evidence.

It’s a bit of a family affair. Ruiz’s mother, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, was teaching art at Soledad. Ruiz had studied Islamic art in West Africa and went to deliver a talk to Muslim prisoners at Soledad. He delivered the same lecture later at San Quentin, at which time he was introduced to the art program coordinated by the William James Association.

Ruiz’s father is a criminal defense attorney, who in the mid nineties represented a prisoner at Pelican Bay. Ruiz was the case-for-defense’s chosen photographer, documenting conditions the of client’s confinement.

In addition to his photography, Ruiz made sketches, collected his students’ artwork, and acquired objects typical of prison culture. When he showed me a photograph of a DIY prison tattoo gun, I asked, “Is that something an inmate showed you or is it something that had been confiscated?”

“It’s something I have,” Ruiz replied.

The first photos Ruiz made inside were portraits of Soledad prison-artists holding their work. He took six rolls of film. At the age of 23, Ruiz began teaching art at San Quentin. One of his students had been a student of his mother’s at Soledad years prior. Prison-art hangs in Ruiz’ house and he has collected mug-shots for years.

In the mid-nineties, Ruiz cobbled together a photo “notebook” of his pictures of people and vernacular art. He keeps it in an old Fujifilm box bound with packing tape. “I used to take this with me everywhere; it was my portfolio.”

From humble and organic beginnings, Ruiz is now one of the most respected portrait and editorial photographers in America. Until recently he had never spoken about his experiences in California’s prisons. We sat down in his kitchen to unpack his memories and his homebrew portfolio.

Q&A

PP: Your mother introduced you to prison-life?

SR: My mother organized exhibitions of the prisoners’ artwork. I helped out by taking photos of the artwork and making slides of their work. Some of that would go to William James Association to help them appeal for funding or for entry into competitions. That’s how I got cameras into the prison at first. Whenever I took a camera into a prison it was legal, and it was generally to photograph some type of art object.

PP: Of your prison work, it is your portraits that are known, however minimally, in the public sphere. I wasn’t aware of them until you were featured on VICE TV’s Picture Perfect.

SR: There are more photographs than just portraits. I taught at San Quentin for so long, and my boss had such a good relationship with the officials that gave access, that we were allowed to do quite a few things.

The first portraits I did were of the guys in my mother’s art class at Soledad who were to be involved in an exhibition. The way we were allowed to make portraits was to say, since they couldn’t make it to their show, their portrait would.

Prisoner art

Prisoner art

PP: Describe the art program.

SR: My boss played bass and the main emphasis of the art class was music but there were two visual artists who taught and I was one. The other was Patrick Maloney, who I guess is still teaching there. Patrick would also teach on Death Row. Sometimes, I would fill for him or accompany him on Death Row.

PP: How did you find working on death row?

SR: You move along the tiers and talk [through bars] to students individually, whereas on the mainline they come out their cells and they come to you.

There are two different sections of death row. In the first, there are a couple of tiers of just death row inmates. You’d need the key to get on the tier, and then you’d go from cell to cell, depending on who was part of the program. There might be three or four guys on a single tier. They had to buy their own supplies but through William James we also gave them supplies. Mostly you’d spend time talking to them. Each day, they might get half an hour outside their cell.

In the other section, the prisoners could leave their cells and go to a common space with some tables. There you could have two or three people in the class. That seemed like a better place to be on death row. The tiers are quite dark. Five tiers. And the other side is just open. One of our students was executed. He had killed a shopkeeper and his wife robbing a store in Los Angeles. He was a good student.

PP: Your mother was a professor at Santa Cruz, teaching art classes at Soledad. Those two institutions have a long and significant relationship going back to the protests and counter culture of the late sixties, Black Pantherism, and the book Soledad Prison: University of the Poor (1975) which was a collaboration between UCSC students and prisoners at Soledad.

PP: You gave a talk to Muslim students at Soledad, then to Muslim students at San Quentin and then you began in the art program. That trajectory explains your path but not your motivations. Why did you decide that leading arts education with prisoners was something you wanted to commit to multiple times a week, and eventually over seven years.

SR: Because it is interesting. I have to say; I think I learnt more from them than they learnt from me.

My father is a lawyer in criminal defense and labor law. His family is Mexican and he’s pretty liberal, so I grew up with that element too. Teaching art in prison was an activity that brought together both sides of my family.

PP: A context in which prison teaching is not a radical act?

SR: My mother was more or less a hippie. My father couldn’t really be one, he was just trying to assimilate, but he was definitely liberal. Growing up in Northern California at that time it was more of a norm than not to be on the left. To do things such as teaching in prison was not considered wild. There was no whole movement about victims’ rights as there is now.

Fair enough. There’s a lot of bad people in prison and some people who deserve to be there but …

When I was a kid, my parents were involved in a free school. We grew up in the country growing organic food. That was way before the trends of today. We composted everything; we weren’t allowed to have plastic bags for lunch. We had wax paper and baked our own bread.

The thing is the prison was interesting to me. At San Quentin they allowed me to take keys. The room where I taught art used to be a laundry room. There was a bunch of people that got murdered there, I guess in the seventies or eighties so they closed it down and eventually opened it up as an art room.

There was never a guard in our room. It was two levels but we would teach on the lower level. The closest guard was in what we would call the max-shack – a checkpoint, probably about 30 yards outside the door. I was really young when I was teaching there and a lot of the guys were way bigger than me. It was interesting to learn how to navigate that. There were anywhere from 5 to 15 people in my class. 15 would be a little bit hectic. Often we’d just get someone from the yard and have him come and sit. Students who wanted could draw him, and if not, they could work on other projects.

PP: Were any of them reluctant to paint or draw other prisoners? My experience teaching art in prison was that collectively they decided it was “suspect”, for want of a better term, to spend the time and energy painting another prisoner. Most of them made portraits of wives, girlfriends or children in a devotional way so to paint another prisoner made no sense to them and was in fact considered strange. They felt other prisoners would misconstrue it as a gesture of adoration or romantic attraction to the subject and that is something most guys wanted to avoid.

SR: No, most of them were into it. They didn’t have to do it but one thing is that since cameras aren’t allowed in prison you can make money if you can draw well, by drawing portraits, usually by copying photographs of prisoners’ family members. If you’re good you can make money. It’s like a throwback to an era before the camera; I can draw fairly realistically and that kind of saved me when I was in there because …

PP: … there’s a lot of respect attached to that ability.

SR: Yes. They’d give me a lot of shit and then we’d start drawing and it’d be fine. I generally had quite a few lifers in the class, because they are the ones who are more serious – eventually they decide to try and use their time. Young guys, who were only in for a little while, might joke around. The older guys kept the class in order.

PP: At what other times did you use your camera?

SR: There’s some really famous murals in San Quentin. I photographed them all.

PP: Was that the San Quentin administration that asked you to do that, or was it William James or was it self-initiated?

SR: My boss, Aida de Arteaga and I, decided it was a good thing to do. There are four dining halls. It used to be one huge one but it was divided because they were worried about riots. Three walls. Six sides on which the murals were painted. A Mexican-American inmate who had been busted, I think, for selling heroin painted the murals in the fifties. When I was still there, he came back to San Quentin, for the first time since his incarceration.

Photos from the San Quentin Prison dining halls. One of Ruiz’ students stands in front of the famous murals.

PP: In Photographs Not Taken you close with a bittersweet statement in which you said while you managed to take photos you still thought about the ones you weren’t allowed to take in such a “visually rich environment.” Did the staff or inmates think of their environment as visually rich?

SR: Obviously, most of the prisoners wanted to be out of there. I’m sure quite a few of the guards would like to have taken photos. Some did. Various guards had cameras for different reasons.

PP: What reasons?

SR: To photograph events. I photographed some of those too. We had concerts in the main yard, which is pretty impressive at San Quentin when you are down there with all the inmates. One time we had Ice Cube come in. On that billing, they had a white performer, a Hispanic performer and Ice Cube was the black performer. The administration has to play it like that.

Ice Cube performed in one of the dining halls and that was pretty crazy. You could see the guards were quite nervous. Some of the inmates were getting fired up. I don’t think they had another concert like that.

The prison liked the art program quite a lot and there were some guards who were supportive of our classes. Guards will either make things easy or hard for you. Basically, I think we were lucky for a lot of the time; we had people who were kind, trusted us, let us do more.

The thing about being there for so long is that you got know people fairly well. Especially being in a classroom when you’re with students for three or four hours at a time just drawing and talking. The thing that struck me was that I had a few guys who were lifers and had been in for 20 to 25 years; that’s a pretty crazy concept, especially now given all the changes that have happened, specifically with technology. I am sure – unless they were using them with their jobs within the prison – none of them had used a computer.

PP: Did you ever think there was an opportunity for you to do a photography workshop?

SR: The administration didn’t want us to do that at all. Even toward the end, they started to question me taking drawings out of the prison because many of them were realistic to the point that you could identify people in the drawings!

PP: What did the administration think of the portraits you did manage to take?

SR: They didn’t see most of them. They had signed-off on me doing photography, but they didn’t necessarily see the photographs. We got releases form the guys too. Guards might follow me round for a while, but I can take photos for days and bore the shit out of anyone. [Laughs].

I’ve probably got one of the best [records of the murals]. They were done on 4×5. I even did some on 8×10. I got in there at different times. Once, I’d used a Linhof 617 lens and camera on a commercial job, then I got access and so I used it in the prison.

PP: Did I hear that the Smithsonian has come to some sort of agreement, where by if and when San Quentin is demolished, they’ll remove and preserve the murals?

SR: They’ve been saying that for years, but I don’t know. The murals depict the history of California. The prisoners love the cable-car because the perspective is right so as you walk around it works.

“This guy before he took his shirt off warned me that his tattoos were considered some of the most racist in the prison. There’s the SS helmet skeletons.” Tattoos read ‘100% Honky’ and ‘Aryan’.

Ruiz used a chalkboard as a backdrop, “I liked the color and I liked the reference to education.” Some prisoners shaved their heads ready for the shoot. “They knew I was bringing in the camera so they prepared,” says Ruiz.

PP: It seems like the prison administration’s policy toward camera use was ad hoc?

SR: I photographed in Pelican Bay and Tehachapi, but I actually did that through a court order. My father was representing a prisoner who the CDC said was one of the heads of the Northern Mexican mafia and that he was ordering murders from his cell in Pelican Bay.

In Pelican Bay I had to use the prison’s cameras; they wouldn’t let me take in any of my own equipment, except film. This was 1995. They held on to the film, processed it, and then gave everything to me, negatives and all. The images are a bit … the lenses were a bit crazy. It’s not what I would’ve used but it was fine.

In Tehachapi, I got to use one camera and one lens. Both were mine.

PP: What was your brief for the court order?

SR: I had to photograph the cells and so the reason these photos are joined together is that they only allowed me the one lens.

Ruiz photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison, CA made in 1995 for use as court evidence.

4/4/95, Pelican Bay – “The defendant was in one of these cells.”

“Pelican Bay is obviously freaky.”

“This is the yard at Tehachapi. This is a common area, these are the cells.”

PP: It’s because of the connection through your father that you got the court ordered gig?

SR: As a defense attorney, he was allowed to bring in his own photographer. As an art teacher, I’d actually spent more time inside of prisons than my father had. Normally, he would only go to a visiting room where he would talk to his client. Whereas, I used to go on tiers, I went in cells. There were times at San Quentin when I was totally unsupervised and there were times it felt a little freaky.

PP: Were any limits placed or pre-agreements made by the courts on your photographs to limit their circulation, or are they just yours?

SR: They’re just mine.

PP: Is there a reason why you’ve not shared them widely yet?

SR: There are some that I considered might be a bit sensitive and I didn’t want to get my boss into trouble in any way. The photographs from Pelican Bay and Tehachapi are fine. The ones from San Quentin; she’d help me get the camera in. We had an understanding. I wasn’t going to screw her over.

It’s more important for me to be cool with her than it is to profit from the photos. I’ve done fine with photography without having ever shown these. I probably could’ve done a book with these and with some of the writing and artwork I have a long time ago, but I’ve never been about just promoting myself at all costs without taking others into consideration.

By now, enough time has passed. I’m going through everything. I think I have enough for a book. I have boxes of stuff that just accumulated.

PP: How did all of this work and exposure across three Californian prisons inform the rest of your career?

SR: I always knew I was going to do art. I didn’t know I was going to do photography. I always thought I’d be a painter. The thing that I learned? I learnt that if I couldn’t take any photos, I would collect things!

I took my portfolio everywhere. I got jobs off of the stuff but I never let it out of my hands. You’re the first person to have photographed it, with the exception of the VICE crew who put it in their video. I’m okay with that now. I always guarded it.

I met the guys who were doing COLORS magazine in the late nineties and it definitely influenced them. It influenced their ‘Prison’ issue (June, 2002). I was actually supposed to go to Gaza for COLORS, but the Israelis had bombed the prison right before I was due to leave, so the trip was cancelled. So, I’ve definitely used this stuff to my advantage.

PP: Did you ever give prints to the prisoners?

SR: I’d give them stuff but we kept it low key because I didn’t want any trouble for the program.

PP: Did the guys you taught appreciate that San Quentin had more programs than most prisons?

SR: They liked San Quentin. It’s an old prison. It has a lot of nooks and crannies. There are weird things that go on there that you wouldn’t get in a modern prison.

There was the old hospital built in the 19th century and out of brick. It was structurally unsound after the earthquake and left empty. They’d let certain prisoners go in there at their own risk. The deputy warden or someone in authority allowed one of my students to set up an art studio in there. And he had it for a couple of years! You wouldn’t get that at a lot of other places.

PP: Your photographs form a weird mix.

SR: I’ve always thought it was valid because it was about what I could get and how I could get it.

Soledad prisoners.

PP: Do you think prison systems in the U.S. are racist?

SR: If 11% of California’s population is Black but then at least 36% of the prison population is Black something’s not proportional. That says something about this society. Obviously the system can be racist, but it is also classist. You have a hell of a lot more poor people in prison than you do wealthy people and that’s because wealthy people can afford lawyers.

There weren’t many well educated guys in my classes. They’re obviously smart guys who could do all sorts but they weren’t well educated. I had a blonde white guy who I asked him to read something one time, not even thinking that he didn’t know how to read. It was a horrible thing for him and, of course, for me. I didn’t expect it at all. After that he started taking some of the high school classes and learnt to read.

Prisons are a control thing. [Upon release] if you have people who can’t travel, can’t get housing and can’t vote you can keep a whole population controlled. You can keep a whole population one little step away from being thrown straight back into prison.

PP: So the prison system is failing?

SR: I definitely think some people should be in prison.

There was a child molester who was quite collectible. People like to collect his art. He creeped me out. He made drawings of the kids he had killed from newspaper clippings. I took photographs of them, but I didn’t know that’s what they were until he explained them to me later. He had a scrapbook and the first 20 pages were pictures of Hillary Clinton smiling and then after that it was all these pictures of kids. Innocent pictures – many of them from National Geographic, but when you know what he was about, it’s pretty disturbing.

There’s some fucked up people in the world.

But I also saw, all the time, guys in prison for stupid drugs convictions and I think that is just a waste. The three strikes law was foolish. Keeping someone in prison, which at the time cost something like $30,000 – I’m sure it’s more now – is just a waste of money. You can give people education with that money to help them get better jobs.

I used to go to the visitor center a lot. You’d see the damage being done when families would come up from Los Angeles for the day. Wives would go in and the kids would stay in the guesthouse for the day. The separation of families when they have to travel so far [to where loved ones are imprisoned] is harsh.

Obviously, I believe in education over other things. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done what I did.

Stefan Ruiz

Ruiz was born in San Francisco, and studied painting and sculpture at the University of California (Santa Cruz) and the Accademia di Belle Arti (Venice, Italy). He took up photography while in West Africa, documenting Islam’s influence on traditional West African art. He taught art at San Quentin State Prison from 1992-1998, and began to work professionally as a photographer in 1994. He has worked editorially for magazines including Colors (for whom he was Creative Director, 2003-04), The New York Times Magazine, L’uomo Vogue, Wallpaper*, The Guardian Weekend, Telegraph Magazine and Rolling Stone. His award winning advertising campaigns include Caterpillar, Camper, Diesel, Air France and Costume National.

As I have mentioned here, NON-SUFFICIENT FUNDS, an exhibition of prison art by my students is ongoing in Seattle.

Prior to the show, the gallery asked that I try to make some portraits of the artists. I am not a photographer, so I was fortunate enough to secure the expertise of friend and Seattle Times photojournalist Erika Schultz.

The wall on which the portraits and their accompanying bios hung have been incredibly popular among the audience. Erika’s portraits are phenomenally unexpected. In this instance, text and image combine and challenge the damaging stereotypes of prisoners that usually hamper prison reform.

The non-existent genre of “prison photography” just expanded by one project.

PHOTOS AS EMOTIONAL CURRENCY

Not surprisingly, Erika’s portraiture has gripped the attention of the students too. For a US prisoner, sitting for a professional portrait is very, very, very rare. Photographs play a crucial part in the unorthodox family relationships that persist despite prison walls. The students are aware of this and incredibly eager for prints, which I will provide.

You should see more of this project on Erika’s blog.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories