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For Some Incarcerated People, Art Helps Lessen Emotional and Financial Burdens

Posted: August 29, 2017

Maintaining dignity and self-worth in the prison system isn’t easy. Arts education has helped incarcerated people emotionally deal with being in prison, and some incarcerated artists have taken to selling their work to financially supplement their families and themselves.

A disproportionate amount of the prison population is made up of people from low-income communities: A 2015 report by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative found that the average income of incarcerated people ages 27 to 42 prior to their incarceration was $13,320 less than that of non-incarcerated people in the same age group. This economic disparity means that prisoners and their families are often unable to post bail or hire a lawyer, and that day-to-day necessities inside prisons — shampoo, toothpaste and pads, for example — may be harder to come by.

While profits from prison art are not large, they can help to soften the blow of these expenses for those who are incarcerated and their families. The profits can also be used to create a fund for prisoners for when they are released — an essential part of starting over and reintegrating into a community. 

And prison art is hardly a means of livelihood. Making a profit is already rare for most artists, and it is even less likely for those in prison. “It’s not an easy sell,” Dennis Sobin, who was once incarcerated and is the current director of Safe Streets Arts Foundation, which sells and supports prison art, said in a phone interview. “A lot of people are attracted to prison art because of the sensationalistic aspect of it, but many more people are unattracted to it because of the same thing.”

Yet there is increasing evidence that rehabilitation is more effective than incarceration, and arts education has been shown to increase self-confidence, time management skills, emotional control and interest in pursuing other education programs — all of which help former inmates assimilate to life outside prison, decreasing recidivism rates. In Sobin’s words, when inmates become involved with the arts, “they become better and more content people in prison and they can make that adjustment on the outside.”


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