Category Archives: Prison Art

Dreaming at DEL


Some images from last week’s “Dream Collage” workshop (thanks to Manon for the photos!). More info on the workshop has been added to the Our Workshops pageDSC00510







And thanks to Pete Brook of for visiting and participating!

Pete collaging a dream.

Pete collaging a dream.




Animate It! at DEL

A former PNCA and Over These Prison Walls student brought Animate It! — a weekly animation workshop series from the Hollywood Theatre — to DEL last spring. Check out the awesome animations they made at the Lil Guppie Productions YouTube channel. Here’s a taste: Animated Haiku…


Richard Ross: Juvenile In Justice

Photo: Richard Ross

Photo: Richard Ross

I’ve been locked up for 21 months. I haven’t been sentenced yet. —D.P., age 16 Bridges Juvenile Center (Spofford), Bronx, New York, a secure detention facility built in 1957 with a maximum capacity of 75 kids, closed March 2011.

Photo: Richard Ross

Photo: Richard Ross

A 12-year-old juvenile in his windowless cell at Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi, operated by Mississippi Security Services, a private company. There is currently a lawsuit against MSS that forced it to reduce the center’s population. An 8:1 inmate to staff ratio must now be maintained.

The above images and text are from Richard Ross’ incredible “Juvenile In Justice” photography series, which was recently published in a book and currently on display in a touring gallery show.

This week we have Pete Brook visiting our class to join in the detention center workshop and present on his work back at PNCA. In honor of Pete’s work on prison photography (see more about that here), I wanted to post about photographer Richard Ross’ striking — and particularly relevant to our class — work in this field. Ross’ photographs observe and capture the stark, solitary moments of life in detention… the moments that even we who visit the facilities do not see. The moments of boredom, loneliness, and confinement that likely dominate the daily lives of these young people.

Ross describes the Juvenile In Justice project thus: “Juvenile In Justice is a project to document the placement and treatment of American juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them.”

The New York Times wrote, in a review of his show at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York City last winter:

The prisons in the photographs are often clean, plain, almost blank spaces, not all that different from contemporary art galleries and, it would seem, similarly conceived, though with different dynamics of power. The white-box gallery is intended as a timeless, cultureless space that gives forceful visibility to the art contained in it. The prisons are designed to throw figures of prisoners — in their Mondrian-red or yellow or black-striped uniforms — into sharp, surveillable relief and to disempower them through a kind of cultural neutralizing.

Breaking the pictures’ pristine look are the texts that accompany them, in which the young people photographed — all faces are obscured — speak of early abuse, material deprivation and emotional disturbance, realities that jail is likely to extend and exacerbate.

Conceptually, the show is a sobering trip down the dead-end street that is America’s prison system. Visually, it’s as gripping as any art around, and, in Mr. Ross’s book, comes with a memorable epigraph by Booker T. Washington: “The study of art that does not result in making the strong less willing to oppose the weak means little.”

I urge you to explore more of Richard Ross’ work at his website.

Photo: Richard Ross

Photo: Richard Ross

I’m doing my “seg time.” I spend all day and all night in here. No mattress, no sheets, and I get all my meals through this slot. — J., age 16, in a segregation cell in South Bend Juvenile Correctional Facility, South Bend, Indiana.

Well Arts: Playwriting and Oral History Theatre Workshops

I had the great pleasure to meet Ann Singer from Well Arts at last week’s Oregon Arts Summit conference.

In describing our respective projects, some incredible intersections revealed themselves immediately:


oral and written literacy

youth at risk

Well Arts partners with “local organizations to bring professional artists to facilitate playwriting and oral history theatre workshops for people facing physical illness, mental illness, or social trauma. Our process begins with writing workshops. Facilitators guide participants as they write their stories. Then, a director and the participating writers cast professional actors to perform the stories for the general public in stage readings.” (text from their website)

Ann specifically works with the Girls At Risk program, whose participants  have recently come out of detention and are working on creating plays about their own experiences.


At-risk youth, girls on the margins …these are not the proper terms for 14 year old young ladies.  Strong.  Smart.  Wild. Hopeful.  These are better monikers.

Resident artists Ann Singer and Anet Ris-Kelman team up to work with strong, smart, wild, hopeful girls who have survived destructive childhoods and are building their futures in the community that the rest of us share.  It’s not a bad idea to listen to their stories.

The location is confidential but the performance is not, and stay tuned to hear more about the performances they’re creating together!  Our goal is to have the girls perform their stories during the Fertile Ground Festival, an annual new-plays festival here in Portland that literally crams 70-90 premiers into the space of a week.  Every playwright in town has something going up that week, and our girls will be right there among them!

In the meantime, learn a little more about how creativity and the arts empower girls who have been silent for too long!” (source)

We are hoping to have some these girls share their stories at the opening of our gallery show.

In the meantime, definitely check out Well Arts’ upcoming show opening November 1st:I Wander, it Calls” from their NAMI workshop for people with mental illness. Buy tickets HERE.  Also: LIKE them on Facebook and sign up for their newsletter here We want to support our like-minded community partners!


The Last Known Prison Photography Project

InsideOut tells the story of a group of inmates in the infamous Lorton Correctional Facility in Washington, D.C., who undergo a transformative process through a photography program by allowing them to express the challenges they face while incarcerated. (source)

Another great item from OTPW-er Sam: Karen Ruckman held the last known photography workshop for prisoners inside a US adult prison in the 80’s. She is in the process of putting together a documentary using footage shot inside Lorton.

The above video is a trailer for her film.

Ruckman’s tumblr shows some of the incredible work.

Prison Photography

Pete Brook is a Portland-based writer, journalist, and curator whose work represents an impressive catalogue and history of prison photography.

The video above was made by Tim Matsui in 2011, who accompanied Pete on the road for a week and documented his work, including a workshop delivered at Sing Sing Prison in New York: “With an eye toward prison reform, writer and academic Pete Brook analyzes prison photography from behind his desk. After three years, he decided it was time to get out, on the road, and meet the people he’d written about. Especially the prisoners.”

Pete answers the question, Why photography? 

Cameras and their operators function in recording, and to some degree, interpreting the stories of (and within) prison systems. How varied is the imagery?

If a camera is within prison walls we should always be asking; How did it get there? What are/were the motives? What are the responses? What social and political powers are at play in a photograph’s manufacture? And, how is knowledge, related to those powers, constructed?

Prison Photography also concerns itself with civil liberties, ethics and social justice as they relate to photography and photojournalism.

(text from Prison Photography)

His website offers a wealth of thoughtful writing, news, photographs, and links to prison blogs, artists’ websites, and resources on prison education and reform. Be sure to check it out.

Photo by Jack Jeffries

Photo by Jack Jeffries

We are lucky enough to have Pete visit Over These Prison Walls on October 30th.

All This Talent is Locked Away….

A short video of the Prison Art show from the University Beyond Bars program at Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, WA.

University Beyond Bars “provides the only sustained access to a college education available to prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington. Its volunteer faculty, minimal staff, and organizing committee of dedicated prisoner-students create an active, inclusive learning community that offers all prisoners, based solely on their demonstrated devotion to learning, the opportunity to take college courses and earn an Associates or Bachelors degree. “