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Split images of two painted faces
Painting by John Zenc

Art is a conduit for creativity, emotional expression and healing — no less true inside prisons.

Making art behind bars is a source of hope, agency and growth for many incarcerated artists, who work in spite of difficult and sometimes oppressive conditions. With limited access to materials and an abundance of time, incarcerated artists must make do with what’s available. The result is often incredible creative acts of ingenuity, resilience and resourcefulness.

Below, Prison Journalism Project has curated seven stories about art on the inside — and the skill and passion necessary to pull it off. From black-and-gray tattoos and floor wax paint, to zine-making and holiday decorations, these pieces from Prison Journalism Project contributors underscore the art of making art inside.

A snowman can be made in prison with commissary materials and a good dose of creativity.

How to Build a Snowman in Prisonby Tina Lunney: “There are no bright colors in prison, so we use our limited resources to make it festive for Christmas.”

A Brief Lesson on Prison Inkby Calen “Wolf” Whidden: “The process in which these tattoos are [made], with the equipment used to do it, under circumstances you cannot imagine is jaw dropping. It’s possible to get a tattoo in prison that rivals a tattoo applied in a professional, accredited establishment. In some instances, it may even be a little better.”

Split images of two painted faces

In Prison, They Call Me Picassoby John W. Zenc: “I’ve been making art for decades. I came to prison in 1977 on a 7-years-to-life sentence, and began doing hundreds of drawings — I’ve created some 1,500 pieces in all. The prisoners and staff here have nicknamed me Picasso.”

An annotated illustration of a prison cell showing how its resident keeps cool on a sweltering hot summer day

A View of My Cell on a Sweltering Summer Dayby Arnoldo Juarez: “Back in June, I was trying to stave off the heat during a sizzling weekend. Here is an annotated illustration of me in my cell.”

News & Chaos: An Illustrated Opinionby O. Smith: “I strive to be an informed person — my own political ideologies are formed by human rights or lack of … ”  

Program Offers Incarcerated Artists a Platform for Self-Healingby Edwin E. Chavez: “Being vulnerable in prison can be challenging, but art can offer a kind of freedom of mind and heart.”

The Redeeming Value of Art in Prisonby Bobby Bostic: “Prisoners tend to find atonement in their art. With limited resources, they find beauty in the ugliness that surrounds them. In the confines of prison, art represents redemption. Art assists inmates in their quest of rehabilitation.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Angelina is an undergraduate student at Brown University concentrating in Education Studies and Social Analysis Research. She was a Spring 2023 editorial intern for PJP and a member of the Justice Labs of America team on the Prison Proliferation Project. She is committed to investigating the relationships between education, mass incarceration, and storytelling through ethical research and reporting.