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Prisoner Advocates: More Resources for Inmate Art

Behind bars, art can be an important form of expression for women who have suffered from trauma, drug addiction or mental illness. Advocates plan to ask lawmakers for more money to provide inmates with art supplies and art therapy.

"Illuminating Spirits," an art and poetry exhibition by incarcerated women in the Texas prison system, are displayed at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, presented by The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the City of Austin.

During the seven years Penney Hunt spent behind bars for attacking an alleged stalker, she had to be more than just creative to produce her art — she had to be resourceful. Without traditional art supplies, she turned to coffee grounds, deodorant sticks and even brightly colored candy to transfer the visions in her mind to paper.

“I’ve had to do things like use M&Ms or Skittles,” Hunt said. “I would put them in a water bottle cap and use a Q-tip to take their colors.”

The artwork of dozens of incarcerated female artists like Hunt was on display over the weekend at an exhibit at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin. Behind bars, Hunt, other former inmates and mental health experts said, art can be an important form of expression for women who have suffered from trauma, drug addiction or mental illness before turning to crime and landing in prison. And advocates for prisoner rights say they plan to ask lawmakers next year to put aside more money to provide inmates with better access to art supplies and more rehabilitative programs that include art therapy.

“[Art making] taps into a totally different part of the brain than verbal language or talking or even writing,” said Rachel Nash, a professional art therapist based in Dallas. “That has a huge beneficial level, especially with people who are less inclined to talk.” 

At the exhibit, artwork from about 50 currently incarcerated women was on display: a still life of a sparrow, a colored-pencil portrait of Mary and Jesus, a watercolor cartoon frog. The pieces, Hunt said, were most likely made from supplies that inmates bought from the prison store, or commissary. 

Inmates can purchase some art supplies from the commissary, such as watercolor paints, drawing pads, pens and paint brushes. But many inmates cannot afford to buy them, Hunt said, so they make do with other items they might have on hand.  

Organized by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the city of Austin, the exhibit was featured alongside a report that found more than half of surveyed women in Texas facilities said they were sexually abused or diagnosed with a mental illness before being incarcerated.

The project aimed to draw focus to the more than 12,000 women currently in Texas prisons, said TCJC executive director Ana Yáñez-Correa. Art, she said, brings life to the mental health problems and the trauma that can lead women to make bad choices that result in prison time.

Months before the exhibition, TCJC sent surveys to 1,600 female prisoners, 421 of whom completed and returned them. In addition to past sexual abuse and mental illness, the data showed that 82.1 percent of the women experienced some type of domestic violence before their incarceration. More than half said their household income was less than $10,000 a year, and 73.3 percent reported that family members had also been incarcerated.

The survey results show that the problems that land women behind bars — 64 percent of the 12,101 women in Texas prisons as of August 2013 were convicted of nonviolent or drug-related offenses — often start long before they commit crimes, Yáñez-Correa said. 

“The No. 1 problem is that we’re putting women in prison who do not need to be in prison,” Yáñez-Correa said. “A lot of girls who grew up as women in the system were violated since they were very little. Someone failed these women.” 

Sarah Pahl, a policy attorney at TCJC, said the responses to the survey indicated that many inmates' offenses were related to previous trauma. One woman serving time for possession of a controlled substance, responding anonymously, wrote, “I believe the way I was raised and the things I went through as a child and young adult had a lot to do with the decisions I made in my life.”

Art therapy has long been used to help people cope with hurtful experiences and develop self-esteem, to promote creativity and — especially for imprisoned women — to allow for the safe expression of fear, anxiety and emotional needs.

For Dara Musick, a six-time felon, the exhibition hit a personal note. She spent her 20s and early 30s in prison for a variety of offenses, including drug charges, forgery, theft and fraud. 

“Half of these women probably has never been heard a day in their lives,” said Musick, who participated in the two-day event. “I know when I was locked up, I never knew that people cared. But this shows that’s not true.”

Musick was a meth addict who lived on the streets of Houston, surrounded by crime. The first time she was in jail, she said, it felt like a joke. When she returned, she realized she might die there, and that no one would know about her life. She then discovered performing arts with Truth Be Told and Conspire Theatre, both of which offer theater and creative writing opportunities for women behind bars. 

At the end of the day, the slightest escape can be a remedy, and art is a simple and cheap solution, Yáñez-Correa said.

For Musick, it was performing that gave her a voice. 

“Today, my passion is to give a little bit of my heart to those women,” Musick said. “I didn’t go through all that crap for nothing.”

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