Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Three pencils lay on top of a sketchbook
Photo by Ichtor on iStock

When Dwayne Burns began serving a 15-year prison sentence in North Carolina, he was angry at everyone.  

“I felt like the world owed me because I was being punished for something I didn’t do,” he said. So Burns turned to art. “Art helped me calm my nerves and see that my life had a bigger purpose.” 

That calm gave him the space to become a better person while incarcerated, and he knows he’s not alone. 

When he taught a class that used charcoal and graphite, “I met some guys that normally had a bad temper,” he recalled. Then he watched their temper fade. “They had a purpose. A way of being a positive influence.”

But Burns noticed how difficult it was for inmates to have their artwork seen widely. 

About four years after his release in late 2017, he built Prison Art Support Services, or PASS. (Full disclosure: This reporter has drawings for sale through PASS.)

The group “provides a way for inmates to display and sell their work,” acquiring it on consignment through an intermediary, usually a family member or friend. PASS sells originals and reproductions that are printed on merchandise, including shirts, bags, mugs, puzzles and magnets.  

Burns faces two challenges, however: slow sales and finding inmates to work with, in part because of rules that prevent many of them from selling art directly.

“It is impossible for me to outright purchase art from any inmate,” Burns said. “I depend, for now, on word of mouth through the many artist friends I made who are still on the inside. They merely identify a beneficiary to handle their art, and that individual, typically a family member, sends the art to PASS.” 

It would be easier, he said, “if the prison system would allow PASS to deal directly with the inmate.”

He hopes to eventually share any proceeds with other groups, including the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network and the Innocence Project.

Burns said he is also interested in working with any former prisoners looking to sell their work, which could in turn help deter them from committing crimes that could land them back in prison. 

PASS sets some restrictions about the art. It won’t, for example, accept any art related to gangs, crime or sex.

“Even though I’m not in prison anymore, I still think about all the friends that are still in there having to deal with the oppressive judgment and rules that only keep a person down,” he said.

Burns thinks back to his own period of incarceration. “I could (serve my sentence) constructively, or waste 15 years,” he said. “I chose to be creative.”

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.

Gary K. Farlow is a writer and the author of “Prisonese: A Survivor’s Guide to Speaking Prison Slang.” He is incarcerated in South Carolina.