Art of Conviction

Inmate artists and prison instructors talk about life on the inside

I get frustrated a lot. I ain't got no ideas.

Behon LaPrairie, 39

Dawn Villella


Sentence: Life

For me it's great to have an atmosphere conducive to my direction in life, which is to work on my spirituality. [LaPrairie was a lead plaintiff in a 1995 lawsuit filed by Native American inmates for freedom of religious practices in prison.] Like this stuff here. I call this "woodland Indian art." A lot of this is done up in Ontario, around Red Lake. It's done by a lot of Ojibwe Indians. That's my tribe.

Bill [Murray]'s got a lot of knowledge. He's a great teacher. People ask him why he works here, and I guess he's one of a dying breed of people who still believe in rehabilitation. He has hope in people, and some people don't--they just want to lock 'em up and throw away the key. Some of us still believe that there's salvation.

Sharon Miller, 48


Sentence: 6 years, 9 months

I've got a painting of a tiger in the show--like a Chinese watercolor painting--coming out of the forest. It's kind of like, OK, you're in the forest, you've been tangled up, and now you're coming out. But I don't really do any paintings that have to do with me being in prison. It's like everywhere you look there's such pretty things all around us all the time. Those kind of things are what I like to do. And I'm getting toward the end of my sentence, so whatever happened, happened; time is done.

I've been doing a lot of healing in here, and the artwork really helps. It brings out a lot of positive things inside yourself, even if you're not good. Just expressing something pretty out of yourself gives you back your self-esteem.

I've been here three years, and I've got 10 months left to go. I'm really happy about it. I guess you can tell.

I was an art major at the University of North Dakota. I only went to college for a year and then I quit and got married. I had children and put the artwork aside and didn't touch it for 20 years. I came to prison and thought, gee, why not do something I might really enjoy? I've stayed with the art class probably longer than anybody in here. I've been in the art room three years now and I just love it. And if we make it into the art show or we don't, or we sell or we don't, it's just the fact that we are still producing something that looks really pretty.

I make art for my children. Everything I do I send to my kids. I haven't hardly done anything for anyone else. It's my way of connecting back with my kids and they've been just enjoying it. They just love what I've been sending them. If they don't keep it, at least they know that I'm trying.

You give up so much when you come to prison. You lose yourself when you come here. But what's done is done and you can't reverse what's happened. You have to figure out what got you here. And then you can leave and be a healed person--pretty much healed. And you know you have to start over and you've lost all those years with your family, but you can't change it. So when you leave here, do it right the second time. Either that or [prison] can really overwhelm you and can leave you a really, really angry, hurt, dried-up type of person. There's no benefiting from that.

My ideas of the justice system are not the best. I think it's a sideshow going to a courtroom. We have no statistics to go by, but it appears to the female population that women get longer sentences than men. I don't know if someone actually did a survey on that--it would be very interesting to see who gets what type of sentencing. We talk amongst ourselves and say, why would the judge take the same type of crime and give one person two years and another person five?

Like my friend said, there's a reason we're here. We're all guilty of something. But is it exactly what we were charged with? I'm not sure. I'm not sure at all.

Insider Art is presented by AMICUS, a nonprofit organization providing services to convicts. The exhibit is on display at the MCAD Gallery through August 13; a festival of documentary films on prison issues runs July 23 through August 13. Call AMICUS for more information; 348-8570.

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