July 29th, 2009

Michael Bingham*, “Texas,” Mixed Media, 2009

I’ve recently been fascinated with the art crime world, and wanted to find out more about what happens when art is a form of rehabilitation, rather than a commodity to be stolen and brokered. How does a criminal see, experience, and view art? Can the arts serve as rehabilitation for criminals and negligent youth? What about the safety of the artists and the protection of their craft? Just a few questions I’ve been exploring, with information on a few programs, below.


Looking to India, Delhi’s Tihar Jail has recently played host to contemporary artists, and some of India’s best known. They have launched an  initiative to use art as a way to stimulate young inmates. Devised by the Ramchander Nath Foundation (RNF) and the Ojas Art consultancy, the project has provided artist workshops and training focused on rehabilitation.

36 artists have arranged to visit the jail,  from all over the country, including many high-profile contemporary artists. Most are not well-known in the US and all have agreed to donate a work of art to the Tihar Jail, with the entire selection set to exhibit at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Art, in Delhi. The exhibition will also coincide with the launch of a film about the project and the publication of a catalog of the works, with profits from sales going towards further funding of rehabilitation programs at the jail.


In the Bay Area, Community Works Director Ruth Morgan has developed the nationally renowned San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Jail Arts Program since 1979.  She continues to expand the Jail Arts programming, bringing a diversity of artists in a variety of disciplines into the San Francisco County Jail (and post-release facilities).  I think it’s exceptionally brave for these artists to give up their time and sense of security to give back in this raw way.

On the web, one can find many Jail Art website and sales gallery. One such is the site Art from the “Big House”, where you can find custom artwork. If interested, you can ask to have one of their artists draw a portrait of you, your loved-one, a celebrity, or even your favorite pet from a photograph that you supply. They promise that, “Our artists offer quality custom portraits at very competitive prices.”  And if you’re looking for “body art,” well, the some of the best tattoo artists are in jail.

In Michigan, The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) brings original works of art to Michigan’s correctional facilities, juvenile centers, urban high schools, and communities all over the state. Their mission is to provide a process, “guided by respect and a spirit of collaboration in which vulnerability, risk and improvisation lead to discovery. [They] make possible the spaces in which the voices and visions of the incarcerated can be expressed.” The PCAP has facilitated hundreds of Collaborative Workshops in theater, creative writing, art, dance, music and video, each culminating in a final performance, reading or exhibits. View the testimony and feedback  here.

*Michael Binghanis an upstanding citizen, is not a criminal, and (as far as I know) has never been in jail.