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A Portrait of Prisons: the Justice Arts Coalition

by Niall Walker

"This is about communities and healing and finding new ways of addressing harm that are not punitive"

A selection of the incarcerated artists working within the Justice Arts Coalition


The Justice Arts Coalition is a network of activists, arts practitioners and incarcerated artists across North America. For our 7th Issue, Solitude, we spoke to Wendy Jason and Jhenna El-Sawaf about Covid, the killing of George Floyd, and providing hope for artists inside.

‘LAW AND ORDER!’ was one of former President Trump’s most prolific tweets. As unmarked federal agents attempted to suffocate the largest movement for social justice in a generation, that tweet, with its aggressive capitalisation, is a reflection of the violence that spread last year from Washington throughout the country.

This, of course, is nothing new. Nearly 3% of adults in the U.S. are trapped within a criminal justice system which profiteers off its inmates, upholding the legacy of slavery. Rehabilitation, for both the individuals within and the nation itself, is no longer a dream. It seems like a nightmare.

Forbidden Friendships

However, resistance to trauma in the prison industrial complex is building.

“There is a movement which is coming towards transforming the system into something which...isn’t even really a system, but is about communities and healing and finding new ways of addressing harm that are not punitive”.

Wendy Jason is the founder of the Justice Arts Coalition, a network connecting prison arts programmes across North America. As well as exhibiting and facilitating the creativity of incarcerated people, its website is a resource for anyone interested in engaging with the arts and criminal justice.

Wendy’s experience gives a good indication of how far this movement has come. “I started managing the website in 2010, and there were about 50/60 arts programmes in our directory. Now there are 300.”

This isn’t an indication of a cultural shift within the institutions themselves. “By in large, facilities don’t want to fund arts programmes, and when they do, they are limited”, says Jhenna El-Sawaf, an intern at JAC. “For example, when people go in, they’re forbidden from forming friendships or communicating outside the arts programme”.

This point was most eloquently articulated by Chris Trigg, an incarcerated contributor to JAC, in a blogpost on the site in June: “All the years of getting tough on crime that has locked up millions of souls has also converted these prisons into barren wallows of boredom. Every year they take something and replace it with nothing.”

The difficulty and bravery involved, by artists and facilitators alike, to persist in engaging the creative spirit in an environment which is institutionally hostile towards programmes of rehabilitation is admirable. In recent months, this has been brought into view on a global level.

"Every year they take something and replace it with nothing"

Black Lives Matter is an articulation of a broken dream. In the Land of the Free, the movement is a powerful reminder of how arbitrarily one’s liberties can be removed when a system is founded on prejudice and discrimination.

“Systemic racism is the foundation of the criminal justice system in the US”, says Jhenna El-Sawaf. “It is the reason they got around abolishing slavery. The thirteenth amendment stated that there could be no slavery unless the person is a criminal.”

Once the protests began after the murder of George Floyd, authorities, fearing the potential volatility of prisons, acted quickly. “A lot of facilities went on extra lockdown” says Jhenna. “The Federal Bureau of Prisons stopped all forms of communication with the outside world for people who were incarcerated.”

For incarcerated artists, restrictions on communication also infringe on the most vital aspect of their work. As Wendy Jason explained, “The most important thing for them is the direct connection of getting feedback, and the most important thing we do is build relationships between people inside of prison and outside of prison through the arts”.