PhotoSummer: Artist's Statement

Peter Merts

Freedom of Expression: Art Instruction in California Prisons

The hellish side of prison gets all the press - the drugs, the gangs, the violence, the inhumanity. But there is another aspect of incarceration that I have been documenting for over ten years. This project is about art instruction in California prisons, and about the men and women inmates who are thus engaged.

These students have told me that art class is a sanctuary - a safe place where tribalism, hyper-vigilance, and the rules of the yard are checked at the door. In class, with the guidance and mentorship of professional artists, there is freedom to experiment, to express oneself, to take risks.

I suppose that incarcerated men and women have a wealth of material to explore artistically; they certainly seem to throw themselves into their practice. Several of the instructors, in fact, have told me that incarcerated men and women are generally much better students than those at community colleges and universities. The inmates arguably have fewer distractions than college students; but they also may just be hungrier. What better place to nurture freedom of expression, than in a place where other freedoms are so constrained? For prison inmates, freedom is likely a fading memory or a desperate hope - but for prison artists, freedom happens once a week, three hours at a time.

I photographed my first prison art class at the request of the man who was running the program at San Quentin prison, but I quickly developed a passion for the project and an affinity for the talented teaching artists and their eager, earnest students. I have now photographed prison art classes in all 36 California state prisons.