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Sunday, March 3
The Indiana Daily Student

'Change someone’s life through art': Inmates create art through IU’s Prison Art Initiative

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Editor’s note: According to Indiana Department of Correction policies, outlets are not permitted to publicize inmates’ full names and faces. 

Tangled strands of dark pencil strokes create the windblown wildness of her hair — hair that doesn’t entirely cover her face but hides just enough to add to her shyness and mysteriousness. Eyes that stare back at you like the Mona Lisa — not quite knowing what they’re conveying but knowing they convey something. Heavily outlined lips slightly parted like she might be about to speak. 

Russell H. holds the portrait of the woman he calls “Mother Nature” on April 4 in the IU Prison Arts Initiative class at the Putnamville Correctional Facility. He described the artwork as having details derived from nature — which he said he enjoys — to represent the mother he grew up without. Growing up without a mother gave him a greater appreciation for women, he said, not the opposite.  

“I like doing art,” Russell said. “I do little doodles here and there.”  

 He said he hopes his portraits encourages people to have more appreciation for women.  

“It may open up more close mind frames,” he said. 

IUPAI — which started its first class in August 2022 — is now at the end of its second semester of classes at the Putnamville Correctional Facility, an all-male prison in Greencastle. 

“I went up and visited them last April, and they told me if it was up to us, you could come in and teach tomorrow,” Oliver Nell, IUPAI program director, said. “They were so excited about an art class and an IU class there.” 

Nell said the facility invited IUPAI to teach for a second semester before they even asked to come back.  

The art class is meant for everyone, no matter the skill, education level or age. However, the correctional facility does have its own regulations, he said. This semester’s class had about 100 inmates on the waitlist, but approximately 20 inmates made it into the class. 

Nell said one of the main purposes of this class is to be able to give the inmates an opportunity to express themselves, something that the general population can often take for granted.  

“The value and the kind of mental fitness that is developed in learning a skill in the first place is so empowering and is just so valuable to confidence and to the ability to learn more skills,” Nell said. “To say, ‘Look what I did. Look what I did’ when the odds are obviously against them — they’re in a prison — to be able to produce and they did.” 

The class also gives the inmates a chance to hone in on what they value, such as their relationship with God, a grandparent’s farm they grew up on or their family and kids, he said.  

Nell said when he had conversations with other program directors and people who’ve worked in the prison system, they told him, “These are going to the best students that you’ve ever had.” And when he asked the IUPAI instructors how the inmates are handling the classwork, they told him the inmates are doing far more than what was asked of them.  

“At a regular university, we can’t wait ‘til class is over. Because we can go hang out with our friends. We can go get coffee. We can go do whatever,” Nell said. “Prison, it’s the opposite. They can’t wait till class starts.” 

On April 4, Russell sat with his sketchbook open on the desk in the correctional facility's classroom which contains the drawing of “Mother Nature.” The sketchbook has multiple drawings of “Mother Nature,” however, some faces fully drawn, others just outlined and unfinished. He sat there quiet and to himself, yearning for his artwork to be seen by other individuals. 

Russell said the art class gives him access to art books, better lighting and access to material he can’t have in his dorm. It also makes him feel free and gives him motivation, he said.  

“It helps clear my mind,” Russell said. 

Last semester, the inmates were given a feedback form to see how the class can be improved, and they all said they wished the class time was longer, Nell said. 

The hope is to expand the program to other state prisons, and they are currently planning to have another exhibition, which is an opportunity to showcase the inmate’s artwork to the Bloomington community, Nell said.  

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Miriam Northcutt Bohmert, IU director of graduate studies and associate professor in criminal justice, said she thinks the art class at the correctional facility would have similar success to a general educational program in a prison. She also said the art class could be therapeutic.  

As art and music therapy benefits everyone, it’ll likely also benefit inmates who statistically have higher rates of trauma, Bohmert said. 

“I would expect it (IUPAI) to be a very positive, great thing for people in the prison,” she said.  

Inmates can lose their purpose in life by being disconnected from the people they care about, their jobs, their homes and all the things in their life they were proud of, Bohmert said.  

With 95% of inmates who get released, Bohmert said, it’s reassuring to know that the places where people are imprisoned help them become a better, healthier member of the community.  

“When you give someone a purpose and a goal — like their purpose is to finish their GED or their purpose is to do this book study with people — I think that provides meaning and support, and something they want to do and something that makes them feel respected and valued. That’s what drives the change,” she said.  

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Past the gravel paths and the brick buildings and tall metal fences at the facility stands the reentry building. There, about 20 inmates meet on Tuesdays from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. for a 16-week drawing and writing class. They work inside a room that looks like a high school classroom with one wall filled with paintings of the American flag and a bald eagle, and an adjacent one decorated with colors of yellow and orange like a sunset.  

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The murals inside of the classroom at the Putnamville Correctional Facility are pictured. IUPAI’s writing instructor Destin Hubble gave a lecture about descriptive writing on April 4, 2023. Natalie Fitzgibbons

In the classroom that holds desks, chairs and a whiteboard, the inmates were engaged with IUPAI’s writing instructor Destin Hubble’s lecture on descriptive writing on April 4.   

After the lecture, they had one-on-one time with the other instructors to continue to work on their handmade book, their final project for the class, and a few of them including Russell were eager to show their work.   

On a desk, Gene B. laid out loose pieces of paper filled with poems and coordinating drawings from the perspective of growing up in the country. The collection of poems and drawings are part of a book she has been working on entitled “Poetry of the Sights and Sounds of Nature.”  

Gene said art is relaxing to her, and it is inspiring to see a picture of something and duplicate it to the best of one’s ability and to one’s perspective. 

“I like the fact that incorporated the creative writing with the art,” Gene said.  

A different desk held drawings of Shaun W.’s life, including a portrait of his friend who died and a drawing of the moon when he saw it one night outside walking while in the correction facility.  

He said the art class helps him express his feelings and keeps his stress low. Shaun said he enjoys the art class because he gets to learn more art techniques and gets to see everyone else’s artwork.  

“I like this program,” Shaun said. “I draw in my dorm all day.”

Hubble said the art class gives the inmates something tangible to hold onto, unlike some other classes.  

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Gene B. (left) holds a book entitled, “Poetry of the Sights and Sounds of Nature.” Shaun W. 's (right) drawings about his life are laid out on the table on April 4, 2023, in the Prison Arts Initiative class at the Putnamville Correctional Facility. The class met on Tuesdays from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Natalie Fitzgibbons
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Larissa Danielle, an IUPAI art instructor, said both semesters of classes have gone well, and the inmates are willing to learn from the start of class.  

“You want to go back each week because they want to learn from you,” she said.  

The inmates are like the general population of students — some are shyer while others are more outgoing and help pass out books or papers in the beginning of class, she said.  

“They really engage with us, and they really appreciate us being there,” Danielle said.  

Danielle said as an instructor, she has learned that there is always one commonality that brings people together: patience and wanting to change and move forward.  

“Art, it like takes you from everything that’s going on around you and just puts you in that different, positive mental space,” she said.  

As an art instructor, Danielle said she has the chance to give back by giving her time and knowledge of art to the inmates. She said her favorite part of the class is meeting the new students at the start of each semester and seeing the inmates' ideas come together.  

IUPAI is an opportunity to have a chance to change someone’s life through art, she said. The inmates will remember the art class they took and may continue to do art after they get released, Danielle said.  

“There’s nothing saying that because these people are in their situation, because they’re inmates at a prison, that they can’t have a source of positivity around them,” Danielle said. “That they can’t learn something new.”  

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