Prisoner Art Offers a Glimpse Through the Bars

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A drawing by Haitian artist Jean Cadet.
Collecting and showing prisoner art is Carol Strick's second career. It started when she left her job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1994, where she worked making faience reproductions for the Ancient Egyptian collection. Her husband had died, she'd moved to Florida, and she was at loose ends. She picked up a magazine and saw an advertisement that read "lonely prisoner seeks penpal."

And beneath that was another: "prisoner artist seeks penpal."

"I wrote to both prisoners,", Strick remembers. "The first one was associated with the IRA.

He was extremely political. He introduced me to a whole world I had no idea existed, a demi-monde of political prisoners. The other guy sent me a drawing that was the saddest thing I've ever seen in my life. It was the epitome of sorrow."

Strick says she continued to write to both prisoners, the first hammering away politically, the second sending her artwork. She ran across a prisoners' zine called North Coast Express. She went to visit a woman in Marianna prison in the Florida Panhandle who had been tied to a slab of cement for 23 days. She rallied local women's groups to write to then-Gov. Lawton Chiles about the abysmal conditions of Florida prisoners. And eventually she became a correspondent for North Coast Express, for which she wrote a column called "News From the Gulag."

In one column, Strick solicited artwork from prisoners and was bombarded with mail when she proposed organizing an art show. "I got so much art, but a lot of it was really crappy. Only one place would take it, a gallery on the Lower East Side in New York. But one day, the New York Times called. I don't think the Times writer really knew what to make of it. But when the article came out, people were lining up around the block to see it."

Strick, who lives in West Palm Beach, has been adding new sculpture, drawings, and paintings to the show for the past 16 years. Its current incarnation is on view at the Night Heron Grassroots Activist Center in Lake Worth until February 6. The prisoners have used the materials they have on hand -- everything from toilet paper rolls to packets of mustard and ketchup. They've mixed colors from the coating on M&M candies. They've melted down plastic cutlery and lighters to make jewelry. Some of it is professional, some naive, but all of it speaks volumes about what it means to be behind bars.

Strick says the prisoners have also had to be creative about getting the more politically pointed pieces out to her these days. "The atmosphere is a lot more oppressive with Homeland Security; it's getting harder to send stuff. Prisoners have to be more cautious about their subject matter."

Some of the prisoners, like Haitian artist Jean Cadet, have had to send their large artwork in pieces, which Strick then assembles. One anonymous artist composed his work on the Attica rebellion on the back of 12 different letters to avoid detection. Mail goes astray more often than it used to, Strick says, or is occasionally deliberately defaced.

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Artist inmate Roger Pitts
And punishments for minor infractions may be malicious.  Talented Florida painter Roger Pitts, serving a life sentence for a Palm Beach County murder, was recently transferred from the South Bay facility in Palm Beach to the Calhoun Correctional Institution, ten hours from his family, who had loyally visited each weekend. "It's just deliberate cruelty," Strick says. "As far as I'm concerned, all prisoners are in there for the same reason. It's about poverty; it's about racism; it's about abuse. It's not about justice. Our criminal justice system is big business, and it feeds off the poor."

"What we need is civilian review boards, just ordinary people to review the conditions in our prisons. But that will never happen," Strick says. "They don't want you to see what's going on."

The show runs until Saturday, February 6, at the Night Heron, 1307 Central Terrace, Lake Worth, in the G Center. Call 561-249-2071.

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