Prison Art
Project info

How do people deprived of freedom cope with the overwhelming monotony of prison life? Some turn to art. Prison art has been around starting from the establishment of the first penitentiary. Time is the one element prisoners have in abundance. Materials and tools are another matter however. Even though artistic development classes can be a key means of prisoner re-socialization, penitentiary officials spend hardly any budget on it. So prisoners have to organize everything for themselves. Only the most dedicated persevere. And interestingly, their interests and backgrounds vary dramatically.

Most inmates have had nothing to do with art in their civilian lives. They pick it up behind bars out of boredom. And discover real talents.

But there are also graduates of fine-art universities, professional designers, musicians and writers.

“I had published marine photos from all around the world. Now I create fish sculptures from medical tongue dispensers” - Krystian.

Drawing and painting are the most popular forms of prison art. Intricately decorated wooden boxes are also one of the oldest forms of artistic expression.

“I draw portraits from photos of girlfriends and wives and exchange them for coffee and tobacco. Other prisoners do this to obtain phone-cards so they can call their loved ones on the outside. But I have no one to call ” - ?ukasz.

“I donate all my paintings to charity. Why? In honor of my daughter. She had heart problems and died when she was 4” - Jerzy.

For some prisoners doing art is a way of killing time. For others – it fulfills an inner need to express themselves. For most of them – it’s a form of currency.

Most prison art is distributed among prisoners in exchange for other goods. Some is also bought by prison staff.

Little known by society – art created in prison often ends up in charities. Perhaps in some way this helps make up for the prisoners’ bad deeds of the past.

Surprisingly most prisoners engaged in art express the problem of a lack of time. Some spend entire days working on pieces.

All of them agree that focusing on art allows them to get away from the brutal reality of prison.

“14 years is actually not a long time. You get so used to the rhythm of the prison day it’s actually hard to find time to write a letter to the family” - Daniel.

“I started painting 6 months ago. I have 12 more years to go. I suspect that when I’m finally released I’ll have quite a portfolio to show off” - Jerzy.

“But the younger ones – they don’t want to learn anymore. They’re just interested in drugs and computer games. They’re completely unprepared to go back into societal life” - Marek.

Some long-term prisoners and therapists I talked to agree that 20-30 years ago the scene looked different. In every cell at least one person was doing art. Now there are hardly 5 or 6 people in the entire prison. “I’ve been working in prisons for 19 years and can see very clearly, that prison art is becoming a thing of the past” – sums up Jan, a prison therapist.

I spent 3 years, visited 37 polish prisons, spoke and photographed 107 inmates to gather the material seen in Prison Art.

After one year of independently working on the project I turned to the General Directorate of the Polish Prison Service who saw huge potential in the mission of the project. They took me under honorary patronage.

The project was sponsored by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

After having finished the project, I’ve been touring Poland and showing the exhibition in prisons. There are two target groups of these prison-exhibitions:

prisoners – some of them, who saw the exhibition, realize that they can do a lot with their time left in prison – that their sentence does not mean it’s over for them;
society from outside the prison – I believe that showing the exhibition INSIDE the prison to people from the outside helps them get the feel and understand a little more of the completely neglected societal group – the prisoners.