Artist Benjamin Wills collaborates with prisoners to remind us that we have an awful lot of people locked up.
In May of 2010 I became inmate #26915 in the Barrow County jail, located 30 minutes from my home in Athens, Georgia. I would spend a week there waiting to see a judge because of an unpaid tag violation I received in 2008. It seems I was quite the fugitive. In the disciplinary admonition of the deputy, I had been “running from my charges for quite some time.”
Running from my charges? I was a college student who moved every year and didn’t receive the letter informing me that I had an unpaid, non-moving violation for the vehicle that I had, at the point in time I was arrested, not owned for over a year? Seemingly, it had been quite the manhunt.
My week in jail? Let’s call it a learning experience.
While spending time that week getting to know my fellow comrades, a thought occurred to me. Prisons hold untapped potential for creativity. These guys were “out-of-the-box” thinkers. Clearly, they knew an entirely different world than the one to which I had become accustomed. And not surprisingly, they were pretty clever.
Inside I learned the unique language, quickly adjusting to a new social system with its own hierarchy. I learned new rules (sometimes the hard way). I made friends out of both necessity and boredom. And with each passing hour I contemplated my freedom. When am I getting out of here!
Since the fall of 2011 I have been using the site www.WriteAPrisoner.com to find inmates who want to have conversations with me. We write about a number of topics, but what I always ask for in my first letter is a drawing of their cell. I have dozens of these hand-rendered sketches now, from all over the country. And while prison cells are all numbingly uniform, each drawing is incredibly unique. That’s when it really hit me that each prisoner was an individual. Each inmate is someone.
I think it’s easy to forget that our prisons are full of actual people.
We rarely have to see prisoners. We almost never have to communicate with them. In fact, for lots of folks, prisoners are only remembered when referenced on the news or when we see them out on work release cleaning up trash on the side of a highway. Out of sight, out of mind. Prisoners are like the furniture in your attic you forgot was even there.
The truth is, prisoners are part of our society—a segment of the social order we’ve collectively created. For some of us, prison inmates are actually members of our community. Perhaps we forget, or even hide our prison population out of shame or because it’s just too troubling to think about. Maybe if we can forget about it we won’t have to own it.
But we do own it. The prison system is ours. We created it. We manage it. In some ways, we believe it protects us. Some of us believe it helps redirect the criminal toward a more productive life. But make no mistake—the prison system is our collective plan for punishment and rehabilitation. It reflects on all of us.
As a society, we must pay attention to the parts of our world we like along with those we find distasteful. Let us not view our communities in vain, but rather with a humility and open-mindedness to make our world better.
What are we doing with all of these incarcerated people? The United States is 5% of the world’s population but home to 25% of the world’s prison population. Seventy-three in every 10,000 people are jailed in this country and we have a 40% return rate for those who get out.
My work is an attempt to remind us all that we have a lot of people locked up. By working in conjunction with inmates I will attempt to explore how the cell changes the man. Individual prisoners will help me design each piece, constructing the art to sculptures that are the size of that inmate’s cell. Ultimately each work will become a representation of an inmate’s existence and my communication with him or her.
-Originally published here on The Prison Arts Coalition.