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Inside Art

For the condemned, making art is often the only way to stay sane. And maybe keeping prisoners sane is good for everyone.

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On Friday, June 29, a memo delivered to the cells in the condemned unit at Pontiac commanded all inmates to turn over all art supplies to the guards by July 6. No riot broke out, but as soon as the prisoners were let out of their cells for their daily constitutional, several lined up to use the phone. Some called their attorneys, a couple of the attorneys called the press.

On July 5, the guards told the inmates they'd been granted a short reprieve--they now had until August 1 to get rid of their art supplies. The phone lines burned again. One inmate at Pontiac said that without art, he'd go stir-crazy. He didn't want his name used because he feared reprisals from guards, but he said, "You know, when I get frustrated or agitated, this is what I do instead of taking it out in other negative ways." He'd been on death row for 15 years and had been oil painting for the last two--other death row inmates encouraged him to try it and showed him how. Drawing had come naturally to him, he'd been doing it all his life. "I was locked in a room a lot as a kid," he said. "I was always drawing." Oil painting had become "a tool for calming, a tool for peace." There were a few canvases sitting in his six-by-nine cell, his only companions for most of the day.

A couple of inmates had put in a call to Bill Ryan, the president of the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project. Ryan speaks in a strong Kentucky twang and can sound both blunt and courtly in the same expression. With this one, he was merely blunt. "It's stupid and shortsighted," he said. He was surprised and dismayed that Donald Snyder, the director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, would sanction such a move. In fact, he said, knowing Snyder's professionalism and his commitment to the three esses--safety, security, and sanitation--he could hardly believe it. No, Ryan said, "I don't think he knows anything about this." The dots between art and the esses didn't connect. "Somebody there is using harrassment techniques," Ryan thought. "Why? Because they can."

However, Ryan also knew that over the past two years, several minor perks once taken for granted by death row prisoners had been rescinded. Bible study classes at the death rows in Menard and Pontiac had been canceled. Legal and art education classes which had been allowed at Pontiac (but not at Menard) had also been canceled. These were only a few of the "take aways" that the IDOC called security measures but that Ryan believed were vindictive.

Probably the most well-known paintings produced on any death row were the schlock clown portraits done by John Wayne Gacy. Yet several artists from Illinois prisons have acquired reputations outside the walls. Categorized without irony under the term "outsider art," pieces by Michael Harms (known for his intricate carvings made from bars of Ivory soap), Harvey Ford (much of whose work is executed with burnt matches), and Hector Maisonet are all collected.

While on assignment to illustrate The Oxford History of the Prison, photographer Lloyd DeGrane spent four years documenting life in Cook County Jail, Joliet, the Illinois Registration and Classification Center (central processing for all Illinois prisoners), and Stateville, where he first came into contact with Hector Maisonet, who had a long history of incarceration. Maisonet, who's 42, had made a cell block out of clay--open the top and inside the pot were detailed representations of Stateville's round tiers complete with miniature prisoners. DeGrane purchased the pot, and told others about the artist. When Maisonet got out of prison, "his work was shown at the Carl Hammer Gallery," says DeGrane. "Six months later, he was back in prison."

Maisonet was convicted of attempted armed robbery in 1994, and sentenced to 30 years. He's proclaimed his innocence all along, DeGrane says, adding, "Actually, he's a nice guy. And then these things happen."

Questions of innocence or guilt aside, DeGrane thought Maisonet did better art in a cell than in a studio. "When he was out I looked at the street scenes he was making, and they paled in comparison with what he did on the inside. The stuff he did on the inside was a powerful representation of life inside a maximum security prison, but he didn't seem to have a feeling for life outside prison."

DeGrane said that prisoners inclined toward art will create whether they're allowed supplies or not. He'd seen one inmate drawing on toilet paper, and another painting with a mixture of shoe polish and toothpaste. "The artwork is one of the very few positive things I've seen in that world," he added.

For the past three years, the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty has sponsored a booth of death-row inmates' paintings at an art fair outside the DuSable Museum (with all proceeds going to the offender's family). This year's fair is on July 14 and 15, and there isn't a clown in the bunch. But there are several big cats. The animals on the canvas are never caged.

Ryan didn't need convincing that art played a valuable role in the lives of prisoners. "One guy told me, 'I used to throw shit at the guards and now I throw paint at a canvas.' That's the value of it right there." But others might. Others might ask, Why should the 157 men and four women on Illinois' death rows receive any kind of consideration at all? They're not in there for jaywalking. With the moratorium eliminating the punishment most fitting the crime, at least punishment of this type could be enforced. And they're all going to die in there anyway.

Ryan's answer was pragmatic. "Approximately two-thirds of the inmates on death row will get off of it," he said. Two-thirds?

An IDOC fact sheet says that of 304 inmates sentenced to death in Illinois since 1977, "115 had their sentence reversed, 2 had their sentence reversed and were discharged, 10 have died in prison, 2 are in Federal or Other State custody, 12 have been executed, 1 has been pardoned, and 1 has had the death sentence commuted."

Not exactly two-thirds, but not far off. And of the 161 inmates on death row now, Ryan says "160 are still under determination," meaning their execution status isn't certain.

When contacted on the morning of July 9 and asked about the art supply ban, IDOC chief of communications Sergio Molina said a ban was under way but cautioned, "This issue isn't entirely settled."

"There are some security issues we've been looking at with the paints, paintbrushes, pencils," he explained. All of these are sold in prison commissaries, and none, to Molina's knowledge, had been used in any violent incidents. But that didn't mean they couldn't be. "Look at a paintbrush, look at the end of it. There's also metal on it. There are issues of concern with the chemical makeup of the paint. We're looking at pencils. We sell pencils and flexible pens--the pens are small, between three and four inches, and flexible, so they can't be used as a weapon. Pencils can be sharpened down, so we're looking at them."

When told the reason for the ban was security, Ryan was flabbergasted. "That's ridiculous," he exclaimed. "Given the director's accomplishments, it's my belief that when he finds out, he'll see that it's ridiculous too." At noon, his prediction came true.

Molina said, "A committee made a recommendation, but after review by the executive staff, we're going back to the status quo." The inmates would be allowed to keep the art supplies they already had and could continue to purchase paper, paints, paintbrushes, and pencils from prison commissaries.

Ryan was delighted. "I think the attention brought to the issue may have led to this decision," he theorized. "And I'm glad Director Snyder had the good sense to rescind the order."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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