Chris Trigg on the state of the arts in federal prisons

JAC network artist Chris Trigg details the enormous challenges facing incarcerated artists over the last 10 years and more recently in light of pandemic lockdowns.

Surviving prison requires some creativity. It often becomes about making the most of a bad situation. If you look, creativity manifests itself everywhere. People making something out of nothing. Some of this creative energy becomes channeled into the arts which one would think would be a positive outlet for prisoners. The policy statements seem to lend themselves to that idea. Indeed, art can be transformative and therapeutic. If nothing else the time I spend immersed in my art is time I don’t spend engaged in nefarious activities. There is little happiness to be found in prison and myriad ways to express your discontent or misery. So one would imagine that administrations would promote art as an outlet for prisoners’ energies, right?

One thing about energy is it cares not one bit for how it is expressed, so long as it is expressed. All the years of getting tough on crime that has locked up millions of souls has also converted these prisons into barren wallows of boredom. Every year they take something and replace it with nothing. Where once there were weights and pull up bars now there is dirt on concrete. Once there were jobs or an open yard to be on, now there are endless lockdowns or an hour or so outside if you’re lucky. Prison has always been a place of boredom but it is a castle of utter emptiness these days. 

The art or “hobby craft” program has suffered as well. Once we paid a 5x markup for our materials. In one wallop 10 years ago, they increased it to 30x which effectively priced the majority of federal prisoners out of the ability to afford art supplies. 

They tend to “promote” guards into the positions that oversee or control these programs and the vast majority of them know nothing about art or any of the activities they oversee. They bring an attitude of suspicion, or apathy or occasionally resentment to the job. Not all of them! Some are interested but often they are stifled by those who administrate the program. The mentality of one individual in charge of the “rec department” of which the art program was part was to be overtly hostile to any idea or request by both prisoners and staff. The question at hand is why she found her way to that position to begin with or why she stayed in it if it disinterested her to the point of hostility, but prison is so often like that so one ceases to wonder and adapts. 

The new tactic in the era of reform is to just not process orders. We have to fill out an order form. The commissary places the order from the supplier. The amount of the purchase and the 30x markup are deducted from your account and from your monthly commissary spending limit. You have a limit of $360 a month, so if you order $280 worth of stuff (including that 30x markup) which is not so hard to do as art materials aren’t cheap, you will have $80 left for your necessities for a month. That is if you can afford it. Most can’t. Many accumulate and save for months to make one order. That is to say prisoners sacrifice to buy the materials to create art. 

But lately since the federal penitentiaries exist on lockdown or modified lockdown, or any state other than normal for more often than not, they use that as an excuse to not process or cancel all orders. Even when not on lockdown, they’ll implement a reduced spending limit to punish the population further which excludes anyone from ordering art materials. The reasons for the lockdowns are not the consequence of the entire population’s actions yet the punishment is collective. It ceases even to be a punishment and just becomes the norm 24/7 locked in a small cell with a radio and little else. 

The art materials would be put to wise use in such a situation. We have all the time in the world but it sometimes feels like it’s by design. This stark stagnation en masse. People have no real idea about this world. Let’s hope they never find out. 

About the author:

I am an artist. There is a power in that statement. I spent 20 years in solitary confinement. 16 of it in the federal supermax called the adx.

If it takes 10,000 hours to master something then I am a master pastelist. I accumulated those hours and more wedged between a concrete stool and a steel toilet under two light bulbs of merciless fluorescence. I spent years there becoming good at something good. Becoming more than I was in a place built to make me less.

I left the adx in 2018. I have 4 years left on my sentence. I am an artist. I am experimenting with oils. Learning to use a medium I never had access to before. I hope my experience will translate into success in the future and that I can use what I’ve been through in activism.

You can read more about Chris and view his incredible wildlife artwork here.

Please consider joining our pARTner Project to connect directly with an artist in prison. Find more information and sign up by clicking here.

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