Art of Conviction

Inmate artists and prison instructors talk about life on the inside

I have almost another three years. This is a place for me to stop and let me look where I was headed. I was on a path for destruction. I was really gone for a while. I just didn't care toward the end, I didn't care if I lived or died. I was with a real abusive guy. All my life I went through abuse. From 2 years old I went through sexual abuse. I just got to the point where I didn't care about nothing. I had lost both my kids so I didn't have anything going for me and I couldn't care less. Coming here has changed that. It's made me see things a different way. I just caught myself in time and this is a place for me to get my shit together again.

This guy I was with still writes and he seems to think he owns me for life. But at this point I don't even want to think about that. All I want to think about is doing stuff with my kids when I get out. And stay away from the relationships. One piece in the show is about the abuse and him. It's called "Stealer of Souls"; it's a demon in a cemetery. And one is about losing my kids and ending up here, "Fall from Grace."

Dawn Villella

Bill Murray, 50

Has taught at Stillwater for 23 years

I usually hire murderers as my clerks because no one messes with them. Back when they didn't have metal detectors this place was extremely dangerous. I've seen guys killed. Inmates would make a shank--shanks are usually long pieces of metal--and they won't cut you, they'll stab you. [The inmates] aren't allowed to go anywhere unless all the tools are returned, and they'll close this place down like you wouldn't believe to find it.

Last week I didn't even have students because they were looking for a shank. Word was that it was a 12-inch shank with a wooden handle that was going to be used to kill a guard. One thing in here I have to be careful of is Plexiglas. They can take small pieces and glue them together and make a knife that would cut your head right off, and can't be detected by a metal detector.

I started volunteering my time here teaching in 1974 because I knew some people who'd come to prison. I got in a fight with a guy one time when I was in the military and I almost killed him. I understood how a split second can change your life forever. So I came down here to see if maybe there wasn't something I could offer to people who had crossed that line. In 1977 the program went full-time and I was probably one of first nationally hired state art instructors in the country. Minnesota led the way in arts-in-corrections.

When I first started working here we used to actually use the word rehabilitation. We don't even use that word anymore. It's not about rehabilitation; it's about keeping "them" away from "us." It's madness, that's all it is. It's just madness. Our society has gotten to the point where we're tired of this shit. We don't want to be in a position where we can't walk down the street without thinking who's behind me. I've talked to people who were very angry that there's an art program in prison: What the hell are those guys doing art for? They should be breaking rocks.

I'll say to them, OK, let's say an inmate comes to prison and breaks rocks. That's going to make him very strong, keep him extremely uneducated, make him very angry, and it's going to waste his time. When he gets out, he's going to live next door to you. Now, would you rather have had him in an education program, learning something, learning how to read, to write, anything? Or would you rather have him breaking rocks?

Dustin Kingbird, 22


Sentence: 3 years

It's harder to work in the block than in here. It's a lot more laid back here. I hadn't drawn much 'til I got into this class. I always had the ability to draw but I'm kind of timid. I didn't want to. Sometimes I didn't finish them. I've been going wild lately; I finished two pieces in two days.

It's kind of quieting for me. This one piece, "Thunderbird Country," it's probably the best one I ever did. This one I'm really proud of. I'm going to send it home. I was just reading this National Geographic and I was bored and I had to do it. This ad was for a '61 Thunderbird, and it said "Thunderbird Country." [In my picture] it's a Native American guy standing next to the car in the fields in South Dakota.

I've only got 15 months to go. I'll be eligible for a minimum [security facility]. They've got a point system here: If you behave for six months you get six points knocked off. I've been minding my own business lately and haven't been doing nothing but this.

Sometimes I don't feel like coming, mostly in the mornings. They crowd us in that little [entryway] and I don't like being crowded up like that. They do it to get as many people as they can so they don't have to keep opening the door. I don't know what happens if you come in late. I've never been late. In here if you miss two times you're out. They want serious art and anybody who's slacking off ain't really doing much for this program. I had a few days when I wasn't doing anything, just feeling grumpy. Nothing would come to me.

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