Prison Education and the Freedom to Create Art

Guest post contributed by Shyla Maskell, who is being released from Suffolk County House of Correction today. 


Many people rightly believe prison education reduces the recidivism rate and gives post release job opportunities. But what they don’t realize is that prison education, and specifically art, does much more than that.

I am currently being held in Suffolk County House of Correction, and if it were not for art and creative writing classes, I would be just another statistic, another face in a lineup of women waiting to get a plastic tray of food. I would be another woman allowing time to pass with meaningless card games, pointless anxiety-filled thoughts of what ifs and I wishes. I would believe all the negative things correctional officers think of me. I would fall into the pit of depression and regret.

Another truth is that many people look at the average inmate through a clouded lens. They believe us to be angry and illiterate, and that we behave like animals. But we are just men and women with poor judgment, who found comfort with the wrong crowd. Many of us, like me, found confidence through substances or other people. And unfortunately for some, those choices have led to a life behind hard, solid, brick walls laced with razor wire, ever reminding us that we are society’s example of a mistake personified.

That is why many believe that prison education and art programs are wasted on inmates like me. They would rather look at me as inmate #1800029, another blurred face behind a tinted window, as someone who has “made my bed and now must lie in it”. I do not deny that I have made wrong choices, that I have in fact crossed the politically correct line. But my past is irrelevant. It is not up to politicians and the general public to decide whether or not I deserve an education, and the possibility to express myself through art. Education is a human right and art is the freedom with which one can use the mind, body, and soul regardless of where he or she is being housed.

Jesus, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela have all been imprisoned, and yet upon release, became heroes of social change. They utilized their time behind the walls to read, to meditate, and to learn. Van Gogh was in a prison of his mind. He found solace within his beautiful art. It does not matter if we are released tomorrow, next year, or the day we finally die. One’s life has value when we utilize our time to better ourselves in spite of our circumstance.

I escape the mundane life of incarceration the moment I walk into a classroom. I sit down focused and ready to interpret a Franz Wright poem, find the beauty in a still life photograph, or to turn my thoughts into paintings. In a classroom we are all students, our past no longer defines us. I no longer see the woman beside me for the crimes she has committed. I can hear her passion. I can feel her truth. I can see her pain. The classroom is a place where judgments are left at the door. The callused exterior that has become me softens at the sight of the woman next to me striving to create the same beauty I am after. To see a fellow inmate become a fellow classmate changes the relationship. It softens the hardened heart. And to use the heart one must first use the mind.

Art and education break through many barriers. They not only reduce recidivism, they give incarcerated women and men the opportunity to find themselves in spite of what prison has told them who they are. The truth is some will spend the rest of their lives behind a barred window, sleeping on a metal slab with a toilet just within their reach and a door that locks behind them. But art in every form offers more than just a better life outside of prison confinement. While confined, I no longer wish to sit at a metal table and play cards all day. I look forward to walking into my classroom with papers I’ve worked on for hours. I look forward to seeing the progress I’ve made on my painting, and to the next piece of art I’ll create. I no longer wish to engage in the latest controversy on the unit, for fear of missing my next class.

I am gratified by the challenges offered by education and creating something new each day. I am pleased with the change I feel I have made inside. I can look out my barred window and see the sky as a pastel painting. I can turn my past and the pain I feel into a poem, story or memoir. The classes allow me to become the woman I lost somewhere along the way. I am no longer alone in a place where I’m shut out from the world. Not only does my potential matter, in the classroom my feelings matter. Thanks to this, I am able to write this essay and know my opinion matters. My life matters.

I matter.

3 thoughts on “Prison Education and the Freedom to Create Art

  1. Elva Alden

    What beauty in this…it is so well said…it brings tears and a wish for more educational opportunities for our inmates. My incarcerated daughter is a professional recognized artist…doing what she can to remain “sane” in a dismal situation, waiting….waiting….waiting….for release . Thank you Cathy. and God Bless!

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