Inmate art is nothing new. As long as people have been confined with little or nothing else to do, they’ve been seeking ways to express themselves with whatever items they have at hand. And, some of what’s created can be quite compelling.

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According to artist, Phyllis Kornfeld, inmate art is informed by the negative nature of the individual’s experiences:

Because of who they are, how they live, and their histories of poverty, abuse, and violence, many inmate artists demonstrate extraordinary vision. They paint without ambition because they are going nowhere, without ego because it has been battered to shreds. No matter how restrictive, oppressive, and humiliating their lives are, they prove, through their art, that they are capable of acting out of their highest impulses. Transformation is a real possibility.

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The National Endowment for the Arts also funds a number of organizations, such as Safe Streets Arts Foundation, that promote inmate art as a medium of communication between all elements of the criminal justice system, including with victims of crime.

We help victims by giving support to groups such as the National Organization for Victim Assistance. We also produce a TV show, Safe Streets IQ, in which we interview victims of crime, allowing them to tell their story and to advise others how to stay safe.

Inmate art is going more mainstream all the time. Even major academic institutions are exploring this aspect of the art scene. The Acts of Art program at the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art and Design makes an annual trek to prisons around the state to meet with inmate artists and see their work.

Out of the Blue – Episode 210 – Acts of Art – Part 1

And, most recently, Concepting with Convicts has been working with imprisoned offenders to create compelling ad campaigns.

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If nothing else, inmate art reminds us that, despite the harm they’ve done to society and to individuals, incarcerated offenders are quite capable at creating compelling and sometimes beautiful images that might just promote healing, reconciliation, and positive change.

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