Artistic expression is a powerful outlet for anger, joy, love, hate, confusion and frustration, but it has also long given voice to the voiceless and social agency to the underprivileged. Society’s neglected prison population should be and is no exception. Beginning tomorrow and continuing over the next two weeks, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, the School of Art and Design and a consortium of other University departments and schools are sponsoring an extensive program featuring art by Michigan prisoners, speakers, panels, workshops and forums all in some way dealing with incarceration in the United States. The eighth annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners and associated events will serve the University community well, raising awareness of the badly broken U.S. prison system and offering hope for future reforms.
Despite its important message and laudable goals, some critics think the program is a waste; often fundamentally against working with prisoners in any creative capacity, these naysayers argue that prisoners simply do not have the right to access the arts, that giving prisoners anything but steel bars and orange jumpsuits is a gross misuse of resources. They argue that the money for programs such as this one should instead go to schools and other institutions that need funding for the arts.
To say that schoolchildren should not be subjected to curriculums that lack sufficient creative outlets is not a valid argument against prison arts programs. The underfunding of school arts programs is a complicated problem that begins with the state’s education budget and ending with the local school district’s; denying one person access to the arts is the wrong way to grant it to another. If the critics were truly concerned about the proliferation of ideas and beauty, they would spend less time begrudging prisoners their pencils and brushes and more time pressuring those in charge to pinch spending elsewhere.
Another easily discountable criticism of prison arts programs usually goes something like this: “Prison is not supposed to be fun; if we keep giving prisoners interesting things to do, incarceration will cease to be adequate punishment for crimes committed.” On the contrary, prison arts programs are not intended to make prison life pleasant, nor could they if they were. Expression is a form a rehabilitation, a release valve for the pressure that builds so rapidly in the state’s euphemistically named Department of Corrections. Prisoners are surrounded by – and often victims of – rape and other violence, plagued by depression, and silenced by a system that expresses very little concern for their well-being. Exposing prisoners in this environment to the arts will not will not lessen these horrors or make prison any more attractive to anybody.
The Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners represents another year of hard work by devoted human rights advocates and creative minds from both sides of the barbed-wire fences. All should attend the show, enjoy the art and educate themselves about the cause.