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.


MT said...

It's a tradition in art appreciation to ignore what an asshole and sociopath the artist is. "Nobody ever called Pablo Picasso an asshole" and that was a grave oversight if the biopic I saw is any indication.

Sarebear said...


Oh, hey, I'm probably oversensitive. Ok, I AM. Ok, to not label myself, I often tend to react in oversensitive ways. There, that's better.

Anyhoo, about 5 years ago, when the job market was VERY thin, and the local Gateway computers plant closed after only three years, thus letting loose a ton of computer people on the job market, the only job my husband could find for a barely livable pay was security guard. So that's what he did, until early February of this year, when he landed a better job in a more tech field.

I don't think you were slamming guards, though, just pointing out the huge differences between them and CO's. My husband actually put in an application to be a CO at the Bluffdale prison, here. Made me rather worried for him, beyond the worries I had for him as a security guard.

Anyway, that's my POV. Sooooo . . . . seems like once the perpetrator is in jail, the victims get forgotten, especially as regards inmates making extra money like that last example you list. ARGH.

Maybe I should ask my brother about his prison experience from a few years ago (and psychiatric there, too . . . I think this event is what finally led to him getting help, it's sad it couldn't happen before prison, though.) In his case, a portion of money he made working in prison DID go to the place he embezzled from. And then some to child support.

Oh hey, on a mostly unrelated note (as if this comment hasn't been unrelated enough!! (well, my brother is related . . to me!)) didja ever see the Mythbusters episode where they test the story of inmates creating paper crossbows and shooting CO's or whomever with them? The ingenuity of creating from little was very surprising. And the efficacy of it, too.

Sarebear said...

I didn't mean any disrespect to CO's! Just sticking up for my dh. Also, seeing all the training and physical fitness stuff requiref for the CO position, gave us newfound respect for them, too, when my dh got all this info when applying. He was set to go through the physical tests, he had an appointment, but then this other thing came up

So we saw what is required for that, but I'm relieved my husband isn't one because I'd worry constantly.

They need to up the programs to help prisoners, but with all the other programs needing funding, prisoner needs are probably a hard sell in the legislature . . . which is sad, because they are people.

I must admit, I see them as more than just a stereotypical criminal now (although many dangerous, not idealizing them or anything) since finding and reading this blog. And remembering my brother too, whom I tend to forget that whole mess due to my anger at him sending embezzled checks to my address and involving ME in his crime and stuff that way, ugh. Whoops, guess I better process that. (Sorry for rambling, but . . . restraining that is a huge problem for me.)

The most powerful and influential statistic I've read around here is where one of you quoted a study that said there's about what, 70-80% who do much better after release if they've had mental health care in prison or something? I may be horribly off on that, but when I read that, I was like, HEY, there's something that might affect people's thinking and maybe legislators, with such a positive result as that to report.

Sorry for the long post again!!!!

Part of me wonders, back to art therapy and such, if getting in touch with their "creative" side might open up easier access to feelings and working on internal issues, if provided with more traditional forms of therapy in conjunction . . . . sounds like access to the latter is freakishly difficult.

Dinah said...

You blogged about it anyway. Is blogged (or more properly: to blog) a verb anyway, does one blog or does one write in a blog? Oy blog.

ClinkShrink said...

Dinah, you need a couple days at the beach. It's a verb: drink drank drunk, blig, blog, blugged.

My favorite inmate rec activity I ever saw was in the Federal prison system, the hugest wood-working shop I've ever seen. Two full walls of sharp metal tools all hanging in neat racks. I figure that was where the CO's got assigned if they accumulated too many demerits.

Sarebear said...

DIY instructions for a tattoo gun like prisoners make


Speaking of inmate art.