Prison by Prisoners: Public Art and Storying Exhibition

exhibit sampleThe Prison by Prisoners Public Art and Storying Exhibition is funded by a grant from the California Endowment. The overall objective of the exhibit is to foster a conversation between the public and the incarcerated men at Lancaster to encourage new perspectives and ways of understanding incarceration in California. The importance of this project is twofold. First, it will empower the incarcerated men participating in the project by providing a meaningful public space in which to have their voices heard. The effects of these voices being listened to in this way will positively impact the prison environment itself, by affirming the voices of those who seek transformation and who want to contribute positively to society, despite the considerable challenges that they face in doing so. Opportunities for incarcerated men to tell more affirming narratives of themselves are rare, consequently the project will offer all prisoners new, hopeful ways of seeing themselves than are typically reinforced in prison culture. Second, the project will offer the public a new way of seeing and engaging with prison and prisoners.  While California currently spends more money on incarceration than it does higher education, prisons and prisoners are widely hidden from public life. For many Californians, knowledge of prison comes from questionable media representations; therefore, offering the public new, more direct opportunities to engage with prisoners represents an important way of rethinking who prisoners are, as well as for understanding the importance of rehabilitative opportunities within prisons. In short, this project is important because it makes visible the prison, an aspect of our society that is largely hidden, and it enables prisoner’s voices that have been silenced to be heard, thereby challenging us to expand our sense of who we are as citizens, as well as human beings.

Toward this objective, the men at Lancaster have chosen ten themes that they regard as central to their experience. The project will feature their reflective and creative responses to these themes in various mediums, including poems, personal narratives, paintings and photographs. The role of the academic faculty, students and community partner is not to comment upon these works, or to frame them within a particular academic or artistic discourse, but, as much as possible, to facilitate the men in representing themselves richly and with the greatest impact. Due to the obvious constraints and challenges of bringing incarcerated men’s voices to the public, the process of producing, editing and presenting the materials is a dialogical one between the organizers outside and inside the prison. This dialogical approach is significant, because it is collaborative and empowers the incarcerated men to feel part of the world outside of the prison, as well as producers of art and knowledge worthy of public attention.

Students interested in participating in the project should contact Dr. Roy directly. Some engaged humanities fellowships are available to support volunteers assisting with this project. In addition, some students can receive course credit by participating as interns.