Prison Art in the USA

Art activities performed in jail or prison, as they are often referred to, have become common for prisoners. Nonetheless, they are usually considered paradoxical and rebellious and are hardly ever publicly discussed. A current research on a prison art movement conducted by Erica R. Meiners and Sarah Ross sheds some light on the history of prison art in the United States and unveils the reasons for a scarce record of educational and art projects offered in prisons. While exploring the issue of incarceration, the authors make the reader believe that what happens behind the prison walls concerns all free men to a great extend.

The USA has the highest incarceration rate, that is, it is the country with the greatest number of imprisoned people. America has adopted many laws since the 1980s that confine more people for longer period and a wider range of offences. It enlarged a prison nation to approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in 2014, which accounts to about one percent of the US adult citizens. Many of them are being imprisoned for technical violations of the laws that do not exist in other countries.

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Recently, incarceration has become limited to a punitive function. There is a deep-rooted assumption that it is safer for society to isolate prisoners. However, inmates will be released some day, so their stay in prison should be focused on preparing them for that day. Prison staff and community in general should concentrate on correction and rehabilitation of offenders, give them practical knowledge and skills in order to create more opportunities for their life in the free world and prevent recidivism. As it is stated by Meiners & Ross (2014), “Any program in prison can serve to create a “surface” of rehabilitation or correction, while obfuscating the functions and daily administration of control”. Therefore, prison art is a life-enhancing alternative that can interest prisoners, make them relaxed, and serve as a way to earn income.

Despite the transformative power of art, lower recidivism rates and prison “stability” associated with education and art, many programs for prisoners have folded. In 2013, there were only several programs in the Illinois Department of Corrections, which though were very selective and embraced only a few prisoners (Meiners & Ross, 2014). Moreover, such programs find little support from the outside, while those people who aid prisoners are considered rebellions and outrageous. This is primarily due to the misbelief that prisoners are different from us. Dr. Margaret Burroughs, the artist and activist who dedicated thirty-five years of her life to working with prisoners at Joliet and Stateville, strived to increase public awareness on incarceration reality. Yet, this long-term rebellious activity was skillfully omitted in her obituary. It is convenient for the state to maintain such state of affairs.

Prisons should be seen not only as places of confinement, but as a mirror reflecting values and problems of the society. The US legislation, which guarantees equality of people regardless of their skin color, sex, and origin, fails to create equal opportunities for its imprisoned citizens. Once behind the bars, people face a true reality of the American society where severe violence, injustice, and inequality are common. Art and education programs are highly valued by prisoners as they “ bring a little comfort to a few lost souls” (Meiners & Ross, 2014, 11). However, programs which are active in prisons are often selective and reach only a small number of people. Thus, many people of color have a limited access to the major democratic ideal of free educational and other cultural programs, which is a direct reflection of attitudes towards racial minorities in the free world.

I think it is high time to rethink the current criminal justice system and find a new more humane way to respond to crime in general. Caging people is already a heavy burden for the budget, yet its impact on the future generations is going to be even more damaging. Additionally, while art is considered the best correctional and rehabilitation method, equal education and art opportunities and access to various programs should be fostered within the prison walls. Finally, bridging the worlds inside and outside the prison might help prisoners better accommodate to life in the society after being released.


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