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Teaching Classes Inside, Building Knowledge Outside: An Interview with Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project

The Illinois Department of Corrections is made up of 28 prisons that hold nearly 44,000 people. While the number of inmates has steadily increased since 2000, Illinois prisons followed a national…

The Illinois Department of Corrections is made up of 28 prisons that hold nearly 44,000 people. While the number of inmates has steadily increased since 2000, Illinois prisons followed a national trend in increasing sentence terms due to mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws. Alongside the trend towards longer sentencing, the 1994 Crime Bill Act eliminated low-income incarcerated people’s access to Pell Grants for higher education, dramatically decreasing the amount of educational programming in prisons. Amid instability and overcrowding, incarcerated people make art, get married, have children, and live entire lives that the outside world hears little about.

Artist and instructor Sarah Ross taught Art History classes at Danville Correctional Center through a remaining community college program, where she met incarcerated artists, did critiques and put together shows for the outside. When she was asked to teach at Stateville Maximum Security Prison in 2011, that experience informed the values she brought in to her classes. Ross reached out to her networks to invite more people on as instructors to offer incarcerated people a range of educators and perspectives. She wanted to teach art production rather than art history. Inspired by projects such as the Center for Urban Pedagogy and Project Row Houses, the seed for Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP) was formed as an educational program that centered the marginalized participants’ needs and knowledge bases as a way to inform people on the outside, reversing the traditional flows of education. They also formed partnerships with area institutions and universities to ensure that instructors were paid for their work.

The project grew to include a variety of instructors and course subjects. In 2014, Damon Locks, an artist and musician who had recently worked with the Center for Urban Pedagogy in New York on a project around the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, was connected to Jane Addams Hull House Museum. A curator there tapped him to work on an exhibition called “Unfinished Business: The Right to Play,” where he taught a semester at Stateville with PNAP and created an animation with incarcerated artists. After the semester, Locks was asked to stay on as an instructor, and later became a Co-Director of Art and Exhibitions with Ross.

Today, PNAP teaches 13 classes at Stateville each year, along with workshops and guest lectures. Each semester is given a loosely-defined theme, and classes work to develop multimedia projects to exhibit in galleries and institutions on the outside. This year’s remarkable class list includes humanities titles like “Poetry Informed by Contingent Citizenship,” “Emancipation and Abolition in Historical Perspective,” “Black Women in History, Politics and The Law,” and “Philosophy of Punishment,” alongside courses in art production.

I sat down with Ross and Locks to learn more about how PNAP was able to grow into one of the most radical and prodigious prison programming projects in the country, the challenges prison poses to students and instructors, and its most recent exhibition looking at long-term sentencing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Ross, founder of Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project, poses for a portrait. Sebastián Hidalgo/Envisioning Justice
Sarah Ross, Co-Director of Art and Exhibitions at PNAP, poses for a portrait in her studio. Ross has light-colored geometric glasses and the light from the window casts a diagonal shadow across her face. Photo by Sebastián Hidalgo.

Jordan Sarti: Can you talk about how Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project has grown? What role has the Stateville administration played in that? Was it easy or was it kind of a struggle?

Sarah Ross: It was sort of slow and steady. When we started at Stateville, there was one other art class that happened on Saturdays and there was one class from DePaul. And then there was adult basic education classes and GED classes. So there really wasn’t anything happening there. So we could expand classes and the students really were asking for it, and we actually kind of put a cap on what we could do, just based on capacity. And so people–I was connected with people who were already interested in these issues because I had been teaching and doing work with people in Champaign-Urbana for six years around these things. And you know, it just kind of slowly grew.

So the next class was a humanities-based class—and that second semester was a little wonky, but the short of it is that there were humanities-based classes. So somebody taught a feminism class, somebody taught a writing class, it was really kind of all over the place. And they were short semesters, short seven-week sessions, and so the next year we said, “Okay, [instructors] have to do a semester just like a university, and you have to be able to commit that long.” And people just wanted to do it. And these were people who were already part of, you know, anti-prison movements, or they had worked with people who were in Tamms solitary confinement, or they were working with torture survivors through Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. You know, people who were already involved in this work in some capacity—through their scholarship or through their art-making or through their concerns or through who they are. So it wasn’t hard. We actually have more people who want to teach than we have capacity for. And, of course, we want to teach, and we put the labor into making the thing happen. So we prioritize ourselves sometimes. [laughs] Damon’s like, “Not enough.” So that’s kind of how it started.

In terms of art-making, I’ll say that the first couple of years we did different types of projects that did and didn’t sync up with each other’s work. But one thing that, as we had a commitment to having shows on the outside and using those shows as a platform for conversations around criminalization and incarceration and things that people inside were concerned about, we started to think about how to make thematic ideas through the whole entire program that people could pick up if they want to or not, but if you were teaching any class you could pick up this thematic idea that we would author, so to speak. You know, talk to the people inside—“What kinds of issues do you want to talk about?”—we would draft up something for the whole entire faculty and by the end of a year or two, we would have a body of work that could build knowledge about that issue.

Because for us there’s a real question mark about showing work by people in prison as a subject matter. Right? You know, because that just seemed that that played a part of this–it played up some things that didn’t feel right. For all kinds of political reasons, but I won’t go into it, because I know that people do that and that’s fine. But trying to get at something that could build knowledge together was kind of the goal.

JS: Right, and then people who are making art on the inside can also play a role in the narrative of the exhibition.

SR: Right. And that was the whole thing about trying to kind of reverse the– We come in with a set of skills, they have a set of skills, and how do we blend that together to build an aesthetic experience but also a pedagogical experience? You know, an experience where people [viewing exhibitions] learn something and it’s not just, “Oh, people inside can draw.”

JS: So I know that both of you have taught in a bunch of different environments and settings. Could you talk about how you design curriculum for people who are in prison versus other environments?

Damon Locks: I think, for me, creating a curriculum for Stateville is much different than creating it in other places. I mean, the resources that you have to bring in are vastly different. You can’t bring in anything that you want, you know. You have to get everything cleared ahead of time. You can’t bring in all the material that you are excited about. You have to be very selective. So you have to create curriculum in a different way. You have to deal with bringing materials in and out, which is very difficult, even just straight homework can be a challenge, you know. Dealing with really intense subject matter can flag guards in terms of the things that you can bring in and out—people have gotten in trouble just transferring the important work that people have done; people have gotten kicked out for that. So you really have to kind of thread this needle in a way. But also you have to work really hard to figure out how to scaffold and generate the material—like other students that you have, but in this way you really have to be responsive and responsible to the students in a way that if they’re going to put their trust in you to create the work, you have to bring it and do the work yourself. In many ways, in creating a curriculum and teaching, there’s an onus, for me, that, even though I always do my best when I’m teaching, there’s an onus where I need to make sure that this work is the best that it can be and work really hard to get it presented out to the world. You know? Does that make sense?

Damon Locks poses for a photograph. Sebastian Hidalgo/Envision Justice
Damon Locks, Co-Director of Art and Exhibitions at PNAP, leans his arm and head against a window frame in his studio at Chicago Art Department in Pilsen. Photo by Sebastián Hidalgo.

SR: Yeah. I also think one thing that’s different from some of my teaching in other places is– I’ve taught adults for a long time, and in particular in prison the adults are a range of ages and a range of different capabilities, so some people come into the class not knowing very much about art and some come as serious, you know they have four-hour studio time in their cell every day, and they’re really…

DL: Rigorous.

SR: –rigorous and developed makers. So that’s one needle to thread, as Damon said. And the other one I’d say is that, I guess when we started, the sort of visual economy of prison is a lot of stuff around representation. And maybe, you know, there’s a kind of work that we were seeing. And it was like, looking at images and representing them and maybe playing with them a little bit, but it was a pretty– You know, a lot of people were just learning how to do shading. But one thing that we were doing was something that was like, “Don’t worry about what it looks like, let’s talk about what it means.” You know? And people were like, “Oh. Okay.” So I think turning that page was some work over years with people to think about, “What can we build together? How can we build a visual language together?” And really kind of thinking about aesthetics as both something that is experiential and something that is visual and beautiful and all those things at once. But the last class we just taught, for instance, we started the class by making a reader, and we had only read some of the stuff in the reader, but we just put it all together and we were like, “Okay, what do we want to read together?” Because we were seeing, you know, yes, it’s a class—we have to prepare in ways like a class, it’s set up like a class, the time is like a class—but also, too, it’s quite collaborative! Like people inside know a lot and they have ideas about what they want things to look like. And so we would come in with a framework and then let a lot of loose things happen within that framework so that we’re sort of collaboratively organizing our time together. Is that fair to say?

DL: Yeah, which is also work. It’s a challenge to do that. I was going to say one other thing. One thing that I think is important—and I think I do this in much of the classes I teach—for me, it’s really not that important what your skill level is, and to try to figure out how you can create a project that takes you where you’re at and creates an environment where you can create something as powerful as the next person that has a rigorous art training. So that’s always tricky. I’m always thinking, “Okay, how do we put a project together that ensures that from this level to this level you get to get strong work out of it.”

SR: Right. Right right right. So I think that, just like in a lot of other classes, it’s a building-up of knowledge together, and I think that in this instance we rely on the students a lot in the class to support each other. Because they have hours and hours and hours with each other, and we only are there three hours a week. You know? And so we kind of rely on them to help train each other and try to foster that. Because everything about prison tells you to not do that. But, in fact, there’s all kinds of communities there that are really strong, there’s brotherhoods and family inside. So just trying to foster what’s already happening there.

JS: So the current exhibition that you have going on is The Long Term. It made me think about how a lot of the more high-profile prison reform efforts kind of focus on non-violent offenders or they focus, like in Cook County Jail, on pre-trial detainees who haven’t been convicted of a crime, so I kind of wanted to know your thought process behind selecting long-term sentencing as an issue to look at for a couple years.

SR: Well, all of our students have long-term sentences. When we did this project around time, in Damon’s class, we were adding up the years. And it was like, between 11 people there’s something like 260 years and nine life sentences. And you’re just like, you know, “What happened here?”

Anyway, the short of it is that people had really long sentences, and then when you sort of talked to people about what those sentences are, sometimes people didn’t harm people in brutal ways, and sometimes people were in a car and somebody else went in and killed somebody, so they’re under the theory of accountability, and in each case, you know, people’s life situations are fucked up! You know? And a response to what they did when they were 18 years old or 23 years old is, you know, now they’re 30 or 40 and they’re not that same person. And all these studies also say that, you know, they predict that, at a certain age, people’s propensity for violent crime goes way down.

So anyway, it was our students’ experience that people had these really long sentences and then the next question was really “Why?” The policies were not always that way. That’s another interesting thing. You know, we know people in our communities that have done time in prison and gotten out, and they have also murdered someone—it’s tragic, terrible—but they’re not sentenced to die in prison. In Illinois, we got rid of the death penalty, but we effectively have this death by incarceration, right? So that was an impetus to start [the exhibition].

But also to have a conversation like, “If in fact you let out everybody with non-violent drug offenses—which would be awesome—you still have mass incarceration.” And so the language around mass-incarceration is so flawed if you’re only thinking about it as the “good” people. You know? And so we just figured, we’re never going to address issues of harm if you just look at people with non-violent offenses. And, actually, isn’t that the goal? To actually address issues of harm and violence? Like, that’s the problem in communities. It’s not necessarily only non-violent drug offenses. And so, you know, really just to actually go straight to what’s really serious, instead of dabble around the issues that shouldn’t be criminalized in the first place.

But it really did come out of, you know, the fact that if we want to see any of our students, if we want to make art with them or have a conversation with them in a place like this, we have to do something different, because they are sentenced to die there. And that felt pressing! And it’s urgent for them. They’ve already been in 15, 20 years. And they’re like, “Holy shit. I have to do another 40 years here? I can’t do this.” So there’s a kind of urgency I think for people who are like, “What…is this it? Is this life?” And that causes a range of– I don’t know how people– Anyway. Sorry.

Sarah Ross, founder of Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project, organizes booklets and posters in her studio Art of the 50th--an artist space from and by Precious Blood Miistry of Reconciliation in Chicago. Sebastián Hidalgo/Envisioning Justice
Sarah Ross organizes booklets and posters in her studio Art of the 50th, an artist space by Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago. Several prints are visible hanging on the shadowy wall behind her. Photo by Sebastián Hidalgo.

JS: So do you hope or imagine that art can drive policy?

DL: From my perspective, I think that art reaches people in different ways, who can access art in a different way, you can access people emotionally and creatively in different ways. So my thought process around it is—well, I don’t want to get super deep about it—but I think that if you can reach people and get people to think about the issues and give them a background on the issues—a lot of people don’t have a background on the issues—so when it comes up, they’ll actually have information to evaluate these laws or these politicians or what have you, when it comes up. So that’s kind of a goal that I have on just the basic tier. Like, when I show it to high school students that I work with, they have understanding about how things operate because—because of life as we know it—many of them have involvements in the system. You know? But now there is a whole 60 kids that have thought of issues around long-term sentencing. So if you can just keep exponentially doing that, then we’ll actually be building knowledge around this that people can pick up on and continue to think about and do stuff about.

SR: I mean, I think our approach is really a kind of grassroots approach. I mean, there are artists and there are people who try to get their work shown at the governor’s mansion or whatever, kind of get it in front of policy people or even get ideas for legislation in front of policy people from the beginning. But I feel like our thinking amongst our group has really been to think about, “How do you build a community of people that know and care about these issues?” You know? So as we are working with people and community inside, how do you build that same community outside so that they know about them as best they can through the words and images of people inside? So I think that’s something that’s critical because, on the one hand, there’s ways in which people don’t know about– I mean, I think there’s people who don’t know about, you know, a lot of communities, sometimes even communities that are impacted, don’t know about the sort of details in which the law works and has worked to lock up people.

JS: And how it’s changed, too, I imagine. Like, people don’t know how much these laws have changed in the recent past.

SR: Right. And also there’s a popular thing where it’s like, “Oh, there’s a violent crime,” and the idea’s like, [snaps] “Lock that person up.” You know? There’s never a question about what– A lot of people in prison—I don’t know the statistics; you can look it up—are survivors of violent crime themselves. So there’s no analysis of, “What caused a person to do this? And what are the conditions, and what needs to change there?” It’s always just like, “Lock that person up.” And so I think that there’s just got to be a further analysis of that, and that we have to understand that when people do this sort of grave harm to each other that locking someone up is the worst and the easiest thing you could do. It’s basically not doing anything. It’s just removing the problem.

DL: I will also say that—you know, I speak from my perspective as an artist and musician, right? One of the wonderful things about PNAP is that we have a lot of different people in the program, and it’s really important for people to get in where they fit in. You can’t do everything as one person, so you do the thing that you can do, and luckily you align yourself with others—I mean, hopefully you align yourself with other people that also have other perspectives and other talents to push ideas forward as well. So this is how I think about the work.

JS: So what do you wish that more people knew about incarceration? Kind of a big question, but….

DL: I think that one of the things that helped open me up to learning more was the experience of teaching through PNAP. I was a changed person, as a result of my first 14 weeks of going into Stateville. And I was talking to a friend, Danton Floyd. He works with youth incarceration. One time he said to me, he was like, “Everyone should go in and see how we do this, I mean, how this is done. If this is going to be our system, people should know it. They should be able to see it.”

So I think it’s really important to reveal what is happening. And so if people can see it, it’s hard to ignore it or assume that everything is fine if you actually look at it. So obviously, you know, we can’t get guest passes to Stateville for everyone [laughs], but if you can make work that helps open that door and open people’s eyes and helps people see it, hear it, feel it, then you’re doing part of your job.

SR: I think I wish that people knew that incarceration compounds problems. You know? That it’s not a solution—it is strictly punishment. I feel like there’s this idea that people go to prison and things change and for some people they do change, but it’s totally against the odds!

JS: Are there any alternative visions for transformative justice that either of you are excited about or think about?

SR: I think we both believe that the system does not work. It works to crush people. That’s what it works to do. And so I think that we’re both abolitionists in that sense. But I do think that there need to be ways that we imagine addressing harm. And that system obviously, for me, would be a massive transference of resources and wealth from places like prisons into neighborhoods where people are actually from. And if we can employ all the correctional officers, you know, at the parks. There’s ways that you can transform that system to be one that actually addresses the harm. There’s recent studies about people—crime victims, national and Illinois state based—and people say they don’t want [the perpetrator] to go to prison, they actually want [the crime] to not happen again. And so I think a transformed system looks at the harm that happened and how you address that.

DL: I think that the– I haven’t said this before, I’m just thinking about it right now. I’m just thinking about how I think what’s in operation right now—all across the country, in different ways—is that I think we’re trying to dispel this long-formed mythology about our criminal system, that creates criminals and has convinced everyone to think of them as others, as something that has nothing to do with the rest of society. And it’s just as much a myth as “savage Native Americans” that people grew up on, you know? And I think that we are starting to turn a page on that. And I think that that is an important thing that needs to be revealed.

Damon Locks prepares his equipment in his Chicago Art Department Studio in Pilsen.
Damon Locks prepares his equipment at his studio. In the shot, he is framed by a looped cable plugged into sound gear in the foreground, and other tangles of cables are visible in the background. Photo by Sebastián Hidalgo.

JS: Yeah. I know that The Long Term is going to be touring for the rest of next year, right? Is there anything else coming up? Or what’s next for PNAP?

SR: Actually, two artists that work with us—Erin Hughes and William Estrada—are putting together a show of prints, because they actually have been doing print-making in prison. So there’s a body of prints that will go up at Uri-Eichen in February, I think. And so that’s super cool.

You know, for two years we’ve been looking at long-term sentencing and so to kind of open up new ideas we asked people what they wanted to work on next and the idea of citizenship came up. And so, in the Illinois Constitution, it says the Department of Corrections has the duty or whatever “to return people to useful citizenship.” Ever since I’ve taught in prison, which is 12, 13 years ago—like everybody knows that term, “useful citizenship.” And it’s a question of like, that the Department of Corrections isn’t doing its constitutional duty to do this, one, and, two, what is “useful”?

So we, again, drafted up a kind of prompt to all the faculty to think about citizenship and I guess what I would call this contingency to “citizenship.” There’s a lot of people like Jelani Cobb and people from Black Lives Matter that have thought about citizenship as contingent or conditional before people even get into prison. You know, like people don’t have full citizenship rights, as particularly Black and Brown folks in the United States, poor people, you know. And then, after prison, there’s all kinds of ways in which your citizenship is curtailed. So people made prints based on some ideas around citizenship and there’s writing in classes that’s happening around that.

DL: So that’s the next phase.

SR: So maybe in another year or so we’ll have a body of work to think about who is really “citizen” and maybe, hopefully, at that point we’ll be thinking of working with people who are doing work around like “Ban the Box.” It’s basically a huge national campaign—and Illinois has banned the box on state applications for jobs—but it’s a box that says, “Are you a felon?” There’s a federal law that’s being proposed to ban the box on all college applications—well, on the Common App. You know, when we went to school, you’d fill out an application for each college, but now there’s one called a Common Application that you fill out once and it goes to, you know, 20 colleges. So that’s a company that develops that, and it has a box on it. Thinking about organizations that are trying to think about all the ways in which citizenship or rights—whether they’re citizen or not, rights—are curtailed. You’re punished forever.

JS: So that’s all the questions that I have. Do you have anything else that you want to add?

SR: Damon is awesome.

DL: Not really. I didn’t get to make my joke. When you were like, “When we filled out college applications, it was actually on a stone, with a chisel.” “We didn’t have the internet. Damon?”

JS: I’ll let the record show that Damon told a joke. [laughs]


This article is published as part of Envisioning Justice, a 19-month initiative presented by Illinois Humanities that looks into how Chicagoans and Chicago artists respond to the the impact of incarceration in local communities and how the arts and humanities are used to devise strategies for lessening this impact.

Featured Image: Prints and essay booklets from the PNAP’s exhibition The Long Term hang on the walls of Art of the 50th–an artist space by Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago. Some prints feature figures, lists of numbers, a snake with the phrase “Carceral Feminism” printed across its body, etc. Photo by Sebastián Hidalgo.

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Jordan Sarti is a writer and journalist in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in In These TimesHYSTERIA, Temporary Art Review and Slutist. Right now, she is thinking about body politics, carceral capitalism, and plants. In her spare time she invents increasingly intricate ways to rest.

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