Prison Galleries: Imagining Justice from the Inside Out

About the guest blogger: Lisa Guenther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.  She facilitates a weekly discussion group with prisoners on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.  She is the author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives (forthcoming from Minnesota University Press).

It all began with a word scrawled on paper: ART.

We were sitting in a circle of plastic chairs in Unit 2 of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.  Every week, members of the community meet with prisoners on death row to discuss topics of mutual interest: the meaning of justice, the injustice of poverty and racism, and the possibilities for personal and collective healing and spiritual growth.  We call ourselves REACH Coalition.  REACH stands for “Reconciling Every human being And Cultivating Humanitarianism.”  But it also refers, quite literally, to our desire to reach across the prison walls, beyond the barriers of social inequality, towards a better world.  On this particular day, we were trying to figure out how to include more people in our conversations.  And the first word that came to mind was art.

It seems like everyone in prison is an artist.  They paint, they draw, they write poetry.  When they don’t have access to standard art supplies, they become even more creative, using toilet paper or white bread to create sculptures like the “mummy” in Derrick Quintero’s diorama or the animals in Dennis Suttles’ barnyard scene.  Richard Odom makes doll furniture out of discarded toilet paper rolls.  He says, “Society has flushed us down the toilet, but we can still make something beautiful with the leftovers.”

Some of the artists in this show have been drawing and painting for as long as they can remember.  Others started making art in prison, as part of their process of self-transformation, or just to pass the time.  Most of the pieces in this show have been made especially for this show, as part of our collective effort to reach out to the public, both to listen and to be heard.  Harold Wayne Nichols put it this way in our discussion the other day: “We may be on death row, and we may never see the outside again.  But the world still matters to us.  When we talk about “us,” we’re not talking about us as individuals, but us as members of society.”

Today, the United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world, and we are the only Western democracy to retain the death penalty.  Is this the society we want for ourselves and for others?  How do we break cycles of violence and find alternative responses to harm?  We invite you to join us in imagining the possibility of transformative justice, both from the inside out and from the outside in.  Let’s REACH for a better world.

Prison Galleries: Imagining Justice From the Inside Out

January 16 – February 14, 2013

Sarratt Gallery, Vanderbilt University

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