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Inmates explore higher education through IU Prison Arts Initiative

Feb 23, 2023

“It took me somewhere else, and I could forget about where I am for a while and get lost in creating,” Putnamville Correctional Facility inmate William W. said when asked how he felt while making art. William was one of 20 students who participated in “Drawing Your Story,” the first class offered by the Indiana University Prison Arts Initiative.

Indiana University Prison Arts Initiative

The initiative began during the fall 2022 semester as an outreach partnership facilitated through the IU Arts and Humanities Council with initial sponsorship from the IU Center for Rural Engagement. The program’s goal is to provide a college-level visual arts course for incarcerated individuals with high school diplomas and an interest in higher education.

IU Prison Arts Initiative program coordinator Oliver Nell is working toward his Master of Arts in arts administration in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He drew inspiration for the program from the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project, administered by his undergrad alma mater, Auburn University.

Nell’s work-study mentors at the IU Arts and Humanities Council encouraged him to run with the idea of creating a similar program at IU. He contacted several prisons and ultimately landed on Putnamville Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison near Greencastle, Indiana.

“Putnamville is about an hour away, and proximity was important,” Nell said. “They were also very responsive and highly interested when I went to visit with them.”

Close-up of a drawing created by an inmate. Inmates at the Putnamville Correctional Facility create narrative art books in the “Drawing Your Story” class during the IU Prison Arts Initiative pilot program. Photo by Zachary Kaufman

Sarah Capps, community engagement coordinator at Putnamville Correctional Facility, coordinates several programs and partnerships with organizations to create opportunities at the prison, including a computer coding boot camp, yoga classes, drug and alcohol recovery meetings, and gatherings of various religious groups.

According to Capps, the art course offered through IU was the first where all 20 registered students showed up to class on day one. Currently in its second semester, the program has a wait list of about 80 students eager to participate.

“They really appreciate the opportunity to learn a new skill or improve a skill they already have,” Capps said. “It means a lot to them to have a creative outlet and a safe space to draw freely.”

The “Drawing Your Story” course teaches technical skills of drawing and illustration. In addition, students learn basic narrative storytelling techniques.

Throughout the first semester, they drew original artwork and included a narrative or captions with their artwork. The semester concluded with a bookmaking workshop and a social gathering where students presented their final work. They were able to keep their books after the semester concluded.

An inmate at Putnamville Correctional Facility draws during the Drawing Your Story class offered through the IU Prison Arts I... An inmate at Putnamville Correctional Facility draws during the “Drawing Your Story” class offered through the IU Prison Arts Initiative. Photo by Zachary Kaufman

Nell said expectations of the students were high and included critiques, keeping in line with any postsecondary course curriculum.

“It’s empowering for students to be held to a standard and have things expected of them,” Nell said. “For some of the students, it may be rare that someone has said ‘Hey, you’re capable of a lot.’”

Larissa Danielle volunteered as a visual art instructor with the IU Prison Arts Initiative, teaching weekly at the prison. Danielle, who graduated in May 2022 with a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture from the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, said the experience was rewarding, and she wishes to continue working with incarcerated students.

“They were all respectful, hardworking art students,” Danielle said. “For me, the highlight of the entire class was seeing the finished projects and how hard they had worked on them. During our end-of-semester critique, they were a little nervous speaking about their finished books, but they got over that fear and spoke proudly.

“Programs like these are extremely important because, through art, things like improved self-esteem and self-awareness, confidence, focus and problem-solving can be achieved. We make them feel like real art students, not just a number. I can only imagine that does a lot for a person.”

William said the course boosted his confidence.

“Being able to participate in the class helped build confidence in myself and believe a little more in myself,” William said. “I love to learn. I drew things that I love, like animals, my kids and the outdoors.

He said the pictures of his kids were his favorite pieces of artwork.

“They’re the most important people in my life, and it was nice bringing that out and having a chance to be open enough to believe and trust in myself to do it,” he said.

William said he is eager to take more college-level visual arts courses. Among his interests are painting, sculpture and poetry.

Prisons may see a rise in college course offerings soon. According to numerous studies, including a meta-analysis by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, postsecondary education programs in prisons are beneficial for both taxpayers and former prisoners.

Studies conclude that prisoners who earn certificates, associate degrees or bachelor’s degrees are less likely to reoffend and return to prison. With a postsecondary degree in hand, former offenders have an increased ability to find gainful employment after their release.

Nell said the next phase of the IU Prison Arts Initiative includes finding ways to expand it to meet the demand. The program is fully funded through this semester, and there will soon be an avenue for people to make online donations.

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Julia Hodson

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