Art of Conviction

Inmate artists and prison instructors talk about life on the inside

I didn't ever do artwork before, even over at Oak Park [Heights]. I've only been doing it for the past five years. I was in construction. I was a sheet-metal apprentice and I spent four years in the Air Force as an aviation mechanic. I've got a two-year degree in auto mechanics. Over at Oak Park I was mainly working on my AA degree. I've got that now and I was working on my B.A. degree here and I'm nine classes short of that. Then the college program here folded so they pulled up and left. So I'm stuck trying to figure out how I'm going to finish nine classes. I've got another 10 years to do. It'll be correspondence through Metro State. It's a hassle getting anything done like that because it's such a bureaucratic nightmare. I call this the Department of Contradictions, because whatever makes sense doesn't make sense.

It's getting crazier and crazier and crazier in here. I've been down 10 years, and they keep taking and taking and taking. This is the only place I've ever seen where they've cut our wages three times. Three times. We're making next to nothing. Pretty soon, how are we even going to be able to afford toiletries? A bottle of shampoo in the canteen is $5. And when you're making a quarter an hour, and some of these guys have restitution to pay, how are you going to be able to afford that?

They just changed the hours now, and they're making us work an extra hour longer and paying us the same wages. And they've screwed up the civilian-staff schedules. They're shorting everybody's schedules. They just screwed us out of another hour of yard. You've got to have the patience of Job to live in here or you'll go nuts.

Dawn Villella

This is one of the things that helps keep me sane. Over at Oak Park I was in the hole quite a few times. But here I haven't been in the hole once because I don't want to lose my art. It means too much to me.

Rich Shelton, 35

Associate professor of art at MCAD; taught photography at Minnesota Correctional Facility, Shakopee, 1992-1997

At Shakopee, there's no guns and no walls. The women can just run. But they can't; it's much more complicated than that. They have marathon runners that actually watch the yard so if the women do run they'll run them down. It's deceiving to people who are visiting. It looks as if they could just walk right out of there. But in fact the women hardly ever have a moment when there isn't someone looking right at them. A lot of the women would prefer they'd put up some walls so they wouldn't have that kind of supervision.

The first day of class was really tough for me. I remember being nervous. In your training they're like, "Never trust an inmate!" I was told stories about how if you allow them an inch they'll take a mile. I got there really early and had written my whole lesson plan on the board so I wouldn't forget and would be professional. And the first woman that came into the room, she saw I was a man and she was startled because all they knew was my last name. They didn't know if I was a man or a woman. She sat as far away from me as possible. It was a big table with five chairs on each side. And then the next woman came in and saw me and did exactly the same thing. And then the next woman. And they filled up the room from as far as they could sit from me to as close as they could sit to me.

I had been at Stillwater, where it's very much the opposite: They get as close to you as possible and really intimidate you, and that really freaked me out. But this was fine. After a few weeks I slowly built their trust.

I would give them different assignments: We'd go in the immediate yard and do portraits. They were allowed to dress up and wear makeup and we'd get fans and blow their hair back and make them look like models in magazines and stuff like that. That was a very popular assignment. Or we'd set up still lifes or do collages. We'd do a lot with double exposures and manipulating images.

I was drilled about lesbian imagery: no lesbian imagery in photographs. Don't let them put their arms around each other. You're working in a system where half the guards and administration are gay. Some of the inmates are gay, some aren't. But inmates all match up, whether it's sexual or not. [They don't allow that imagery] because the taxpayers would complain if those images got out. They live double lives.

Everybody wanted to be my friend so they'd tell me about [other people's crimes]. I'll give you an example: "Yeah, she was so hooked on drugs that she used her 13-year-old daughter to make money by prostituting her out to creeps." You get to the point where you just don't want to know, because you know them as very caring and loving people. You know them pretty much as people. And probably in a more emotional and deep way than you know most people. You probably see them more than they see their husband or children. I had long-termers who were in there all six years with me. Those are the people I miss. And they're probably the people that are in for the worst crimes.

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