Unlocking Creativity Behind Bars

By Wendy Jason

This article was originally posted 11/23/10 on Change.org

Doh-Boy is over a foot taller than I am and easily 150 pounds heavier. Intricate tattoos peek out from beneath his bright orange jail skivvies, the most visible of which is a bar of music that embraces the honey-colored flesh of his massive neck.

Upon meeting Doh-Boy for the first time, I could have easily been intimidated by his physical stature, not to mention the fact that he, like the 12 other men in the creative writing group, was an inmate in a high-felony pod at Albuquerque’s county jail. But there is something in Doh-Boy’s eyes -– a gentle sparkle -– that immediately provides a sense of comfort and safety.

Doh-Boy, like many others in this jail, is an artist. Songwriting is an outlet for his fear and pain; he has no idea when he will next be in front of a judge, let alone when he will get to kiss his baby goodnight or help put food on his fiancé’s table.

While many people in jail spend hours writing poems, songs, letters, or even their life stories, others utilize any accessible material to create visual masterpieces. Quarter dollar-sized dream catchers and tiny crosses are carefully woven with threads pulled from bed sheets and jail-issued clothing. Origami-style roses are fashioned from toilet paper. Picture frames and miniature purses for daughters and girlfriends are made from intertwined strips of shiny snack food wrappers. Tattoo ink, always on demand, begins with lunch tray leftovers. Art supplies are generally considered contraband, so as a result incarcerated artists have to be resourceful. In doing so, they risk the possibility of harsh new charges, at worst, and deprivation of self-expression, at best.

There are numerous innovative programs that bring safe opportunities for creative expression into U.S. prisons and jails. For some of the men and women who participate in these programs, art simply offers a much-needed escape from the endless monotony of life behind bars. But for many others, like Doh-Boy, art is not only a form of therapy; it is also a tool for maintaining relationships.

By sending home carefully composed letters, or relentlessly slaved-over works of art, these men are seeking to let those who matter most to them know that they aren’t forgotten. Doing so eases the burden of guilt that they all seem to carry as a result of their belief that they have failed everyone they love. Of course, finding funding to sustain these efforts is always a challenge, as the general public, like the powers that be, still tends to view those behind bars as unworthy of compassion, and undeserving of charity. Despite a growing body of research that confirms that arts-based programs lower recidivism, many of them are being cut.

So consider supporting these programs. By doing so, you will contribute to not only the well-being of some of the over two million incarcerated men and women in the U.S., but also to the loved ones who await their return home.

Wendy Jason is a writer for Change.org and a passionate advocate for restorative justice who has worked on behalf of prisoners across the country.

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