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Freedom of Expression: Art instruction in California prisons

Peter Merts | California, United States

Mural on the level 4 exercise yard at Pelican Bay State Prison.

The hellish side of prison gets all the press—the drugs, the gangs, the violence, the inhumanity. But there is another aspect of incarceration that I have been documenting for over ten years; this project is about inmates in California prisons who choose to study art.

These men and women have told me that art class is a sanctuary—a safe place where tribalism, hyper-vigilance, and the rules of the yard are checked at the door. In class—with the guidance and mentorship of professional artists—there is freedom to experiment, to express oneself, to collaborate, and to take risks.

For many inmates, freedom is either a fading memory or an uncertain hope—but for prison artists, freedom happens once a week—three hours at a time.

These photographs document the Arts in Corrections program, which is funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and administered by the California Arts Council. All 36 California state prisons for adults currently offer art classes to the inmates.

I have been documenting these classes for over 10 years, and have visited all 36 of these prisons.



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