Monday, July 24, 2006

Sock Puppets In Solitary

A recent New York Times article discussed the opening of an art exhibit for Donny Johnson, a Pelican Bay prison inmate who made paintings by leaching the color out of M&M's and painted using a brush made out of his own hair. My co-blogger Dinah wanted to know why I couldn't occasionally write a correctional post about something like that. I thought about it, then I read the article. I was struck by this part:

“He is serving three life terms in solitary confinement for murder and for slashing a prison guard’s throat.”
That's why. In this article, Johnson is the “artist” while the person responsible for keeping us safe from him, the correctional officer, is reduced to being a “guard”. (FYI to the New York Times, correctional officers are not “guards”. They are law enforcement professionals, like state troopers or your local police. “Guards” are civilians hired off the street and put into a uniform by a business or other organization. They have no particular training and no sanctioned law enforcement authority.) Johnson's work is featured in the Times while his victim remains nameless in the same article.

Nevertheless, the topic of prisoner art is an interesting one. I personally have some homemade artwork given to me by my patients, and I'm sure many of my colleagues also have an occupational therapy project or two lying around from their inpatient service years. In correctional facilities the main motivation for doing art---beyond simple relief from boredom---is that it can be a money-making venture. Inmates who are good at it can make up to $20 per day designing birthday cards, Mother's Day and other holiday cards. You can buy greeting cards from commissary, but frankly some of the inmate art is better and you can barter for it as opposed to having money taken out of your commissary account. Inmates who can draw sometimes also make money by doing tattoos, an occupation held by some of my patients when they're in free society. Tattooing in prison isn't really permitted due to the risk of HIV and hepatitis, but it's not high on the enforcement hit list.

It's rare for a prison artist to make money off their work from free society, as Donny Johnson did, although the article makes a point of explaining that the money his art earned went to a charitable prison fund. (I don't know why it didn't go to his victims' families.) I guess if acting is included then Charles Dutton certainly made it big after his stint in the Maryland penitentiary, but that's a unique case. For the most part, successful prison artists make their money more on notoriety than artistic merit. Most people have at least heard of serial killer art---John Wayne Gacy's clown paintings, Gary Gilmore's pencil drawings, etc. I've heard that Charles Manson fancies himself a musician and that he makes sock puppets in prison.

And for those of you who didn't know, part of our Federal tax money goes to support prison art. In 2006 the Washington DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities gave a grant to the Prisons Foundation to support and sell artwork made by prisoners. You can order it online and the proceeds from those sales do go to the inmate.