Adam Lovell is the owner and operator of WriteAPrisoner.com, a website whose primary goal is getting pen-pals for inmates. This is done by placing the inmate’s information on the website, which typically includes a photo, bio, and some general information. The site does not give inmates a mechanism for communicating online, but rather an outlet for people in the free world to write to them directly via postal mail. Currently, there are some 10,000 inmates listed on WriteAPrisoner.com.
I started this service in 2000, and one thing I noticed early on is that many inmates submitted self-portraits in place of an actual photo. When asked why, I was surprised to learn that many institutions do not allow inmates to take photos. Although most wardens don’t enforce such silly practices, creating self-portraits was certainly a way to circumvent the problem of not being able to submit a photo. In fact, the art work came in so regularly in place of or in addition to a photo, that we eventually created a section just for inmate artwork on our website. Here, those who view our site are invited to vote for the best inmate art. The highest rated art is displayed on our homepage, which provides some motivation for the inmates to submit their best work to us.
For years I have been amazed at some of the incredible work that has come across my desk, typically as tokens of appreciation from inmates. I have a prison cross necklace woven from two prison towels, baby shoes made of gum wrappers, and I have seen a prison cell reconstructed using only materials available within the prison. While officers may consider this contraband in some cases, I see it as a truly unique and incredible way of turning one’s world into a canvas. The ability to grow and express one’s talent while in prison is therapeutic. Many inmates have told us that honing their ability to paint, carve, draw, etc. has directly contributed to their survival while in prison. Some inmates will turn anything they can into art. We receive letters every day that have been drawn or painted on. We have even received correspondence where the envelope was opened at every seam, drawn on inside and out, resealed and sent to us. Yes, they have time on their hands, and surely this is a constructive outlet for some of that time.
We have also heard from countless inmates who have told us that they never knew they had talent until they were incarcerated. I still believe that after a hundred years behind bars my stickmen would be unlikely to evolve, but who knows? With time and desire, it seems, such feats are possible. In any case, it is a wonderful experience to be able to share inmate art with the world at large. I think many people will be surprised to find so much amazing talent residing behind our prison walls. I think art can also be a great tool in showing the rest of the world that inmates are simply people, too. They are regular human beings with regrets, dreams, challenges, and in many cases, artistic talents.
With the arts one of the first sacrifices in education budget cuts, I can’t help but wonder how many people may have taken a different path had their natural talents been given the opportunity to develop in the classroom. We know there is a higher illiteracy rate among inmates compared to the free world, but there also seems to be a disproportionately high percentage of talented artists incarcerated today. Many of my friends are educators, and all lament the focus on standardized tests vs. creative development. Could our education system be working against certain children by not fostering their unique talents? If taught and encouraged in the school system, would more children find themselves behind an easel rather than behind bars?