Visions in Penal Time

Scholar Nicole R. Fleetwood discusses how incarcerated artists navigate the constraints of the prison’s built environment.

Zoé Samudzi
January 4, 2021
Jared Owens: Ellapsium: master & Helm, 2016, mixed media on birch panel, each panel 48 x 31 in. Photo: Argenis Apolinario. Courtesy of Jared Owens and Nicole R. Fleetwood. “Since his release,” Fleetwood writes, “Owens continues to explore the power of orange as a symbol of penal captivity and fugitive risk,” as he did during his incarceration. The triptych, made while Owens was out on parole, combines a blueprint of Fairton Federal Correctional Institution, where Owens was incarcerated, with a diagram of the Brookes slave ship that was widely distributed by abolitionists in the late 18th century.

Jared Owens, a formerly incarcerated painter, once took a risky three-yard journey for the sake of his artistic vision. During his imprisonment, Owens became interested in experimenting with paintings on canvases larger than those the prison permitted him to use—so when he happened to see a wooden plank that he could use to stretch a larger canvas, he ventured into a prohibited area to grab it. The stakes were high: If the guards had spotted him, they might have confiscated his possessions—including his art materials. His sentence could have been extended; he might have even been placed in solitary confinement. This is just one of the ways that Owens’s practice navigated the constraints of the prison’s built environment and the ways that carceral space is controlled. For incarcerated artists, every aesthetic choice is made within the context of the materials permitted by the penal institution. Owens—whose abstract works are influenced by Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Caravaggio—used soil from the prison yard to texture his paintings, mixing it into paints and dyes to create certain hues that were unavailable in the facility; vibrant reds, for example, are forbidden in most prisons because they contain the poisonous metal cadmium.

Owens’s practice is among those detailed in scholar Nicole R. Fleetwood’s new book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, which examines and exhibits the work of currently and formerly incarcerated artists. In this ethnographic study, Fleetwood, a professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers University, explores how creativity and artistic expression manifest within prison walls, where nearly 1% of people in the United States currently reside. Fleetwood highlights how the work that emerges is shaped by what she calls “penal space”—the architecture of imprisonment—and “penal time,” the various ways in which incarceration’s total control over a person’s life “fundamentally reconstitutes [their] being in time.”

In the book’s preface, Fleetwood describes how the incarceration of relatives and community members affected her early life, and how her interest in prison art emerged from encounters with images produced by or involving incarcerated people, from “graphite drawings and birthday cards” designed by fellow inmates and sent home by incarcerated relatives, to photos taken when visiting incarcerated family and friends, to the “paintings, miniatures, and sculptures made by incarcerated people” that often filled visiting rooms. These images, Fleetwood argues, posed a counternarrative to the story advanced by the dominant visual language of carcerality in the 1980s and ’90s, when “[a]ssaultive and dehumanizing images, such as ‘wanted’ posters, arrest photographs, crime-scene images, and mug shots . . . reinforced the practices of aggressive policing and dominant notions of black criminality.” Fleetwood brings this attentiveness to the connection between visual representations and social hierarchies to bear on the art world; Marking Time questions, and ultimately rejects, the hegemonic art canon’s separation of “real” art from aesthetic forms that aren’t taken seriously, like art made by incarcerated people—a taxonomy that mirrors carceral logic about whose lives are valued. 

I spoke to Fleetwood about the making of the book, the threat of carceral co-optation of art, and the meaningful yet limited experience of art-making in prison. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Zoé Samudzi: Your conversations with artists, the artworks you include in the book, and the theories you offer together represent a particular practice of archiving. How did you approach that archival responsibility, and what challenges did it present?

Nicole R. Fleetwood: Part of the reason the book took me a long time to complete is that there was no straight line to any person or work of art in it. The featured artists are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, often unhoused, often no longer in possession of many of their works. So I had to just be okay with what I could get access to, and sometimes things would come back around years later. A lot of it came down to relationship-building. Other incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people put me in touch with most of the artists I included. In working with the artists, we would have multiple encounters and exchanges. And, whenever possible, I shared my writing about them with them before it was printed. The process of completing this project in conversation with so many people who had been suffering tremendously—and whose huge acts of generosity made the book possible—was deeply moving.

ZS: You write about incarcerated artists reconstituting what productivity and labor mean in the context of state captivity. How do you think about the labor politics of incarcerated art? 

NRF: It’s tricky, and there’s no one answer to it. Art made by incarcerated people gets used in all kinds of ways that reproduce extractive capitalism to benefit carceral institutions. One example is when the art is used to “beautify” public spaces within the prison: That’s incarcerated artists doing labor on behalf of the prison. Another is when prisons sell works or auction them off. In those instances, even if incarcerated people might benefit financially in some way, the carceral facilities are benefiting in ways that go far beyond that. Art also functions as a management tool: It busies people, and becomes a way to make people more compliant.

So, as much as I am completely in awe of the types of experimentation and resilience and risk-taking that incarcerated artists are involved in, I also want to be clear that the art-making is still constrained by the same carceral structures that govern the minute details of the life of someone in captivity, from when they can take a shower to when they can eat, when they have access to medicine, fresh air, whatever. Prisons are meant to isolate, to dehumanize, to destroy the sociality and intimacy of people held captive. Under those conditions, what does it mean to create, to use what I call “penal time” for a practice of aesthetic experimentation? I talk about it as a rethinking of productivity and labor, but one that also exists within all those other systems. Having and practicing aesthetic vision is something akin to a liberatory experience, but it doesn’t necessarily result in freedom. Still, when the state is saying that your primary purpose is to be punished, to have a vision—to see something other than that—is something remarkable in that it exceeds the state mandate of punishment.

ZS: It seems like one of the concrete ways that vision pushes against that mandate—but is also constrained by it—is in the artists’ struggles to make art with only the materials available in prison.

Dean Gillispie: Spiz’s Diner; 1996; Chipboard, popsicle sticks, soda cans, cassette tape cases, flashlight bulbs, seed beads, paint, glue; 16 × 24 × 12 in. Photo: Jay Yocis. Courtesy of Dean Gillispie.

Dean Gillispie: Spiz’s Dinette; 1998; Tablet backs, stick pins, popsicle sticks, cigarette foil; 16 × 8 × 5 in. Photo: Jay Yocis. Courtesy of Dean Gillispie.

“Working primarily at night, when he was less likely to be detected,” writes Fleetwood, “Gillispie built dozens of miniatures of structures like diners, soda pop stands, gas stations, movie houses—nostalgic models of Americana—based on what he imagined he would have seen if traveling along Route 66 in the early and mid-twentieth century.” These constructions incorporated contraband items, such as beads, sewing pins, and wire, often procured by fellow inmates. 

NRF: The book really centers around the way incarcerated artists who have limited materials available for creating are preoccupied by this problem and manage to improvise. As I worked on the book, I became more and more fixated on the process of acquiring items for art-making, the innovation with found object and state goods—what I call “penal matter”—and the risks the artists were willing to take in order to make art. I remember one formerly incarcerated artist, Gilberto Rivera, describing to me how when he was in solitary confinement and had the bare minimum, he would use soap to draw on the shower stalls and use his lunch bags and a broken pencil for sketching.

ZS: You discuss the nearly parallel evolutions of the museum and the prison as Enlightenment projects, citing sociologist Tony Bennett. Bennett argues that the museum evolved to legitimize new forms of state punishment in part by exhibiting artifacts from older forms—like the cat-o’-nine-tails used for flogging, or the scaffolds used in executions by hanging—to reinscribe the penitentiary as a necessary part of Western civilization, and thus to help cultivate a governable populace. This made me wonder about prison art within the white cube space. I know you’ve curated shows. What does it mean that a museum would exhibit work by incarcerated people without acknowledging its own relationship to carceral structures?

NRF: In this moment, many museums are being forced—most are not doing it voluntarily—to really look at their archives and their colonial history of collecting, to examine the very idea of collecting. Decolonization movements are really pushing institutions to do some important self-examination, and to think through what the future of the museum is going to be. But the relationship between civic or cultural institutions and punitive discipline is often overlooked. Museums and prisons were often constructed near each other because they were both used to educate the public about conduct: The museum exemplified what people should aspire to, the prison what not to do.

When I think about curating and collaborating with museums, to me it’s about the experiment more than the final product. How might we rethink the museum: who belongs, what belongs, what’s the function of the institution? It’s about radically rethinking aesthetic practice and value systems—Lindon Barrett’s Blackness and Value is a great book on this subject. Sometimes people ask me, “Why do you work with museums on this?” I think that not engaging the museum means continuing to marginalize work made on the margins. And the other thing is that in my experience, for artists who’ve been incarcerated, this is a really big deal. Having their art in a museum is a moment of recognition that they absolutely want and feel they deserve.

ZS: I loved how, in the chapter about portraiture, you tied together the exclusionary history of this style—from the 15th through the mid-18th centuries, it was reserved for rulers, nobility, and other prominent figures—with scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff’s idea, developed in his book The Right to Look, of an anti-colonial alternative to the hegemonic gaze, one that empowers marginalized people to claim an autonomous looking, giving them authority over what should be seen or artistically rendered. 

NRF: I really wanted to ground that inquiry in what it means for someone’s fundamental experience—their very subject position—to be that of being punished. In prison, you wake up and you’re punished, you go to sleep and you’re punished, you take a dump and you’re punished. What does it mean, then, to practice acts of discernment in which you’re looking out at other people and making aesthetic judgments about how you’re going to render that person? And what does it mean to render yourself under those conditions? That, to me, is very powerful.

James “Yaya” Hough: I Am the Economy, 2018, watercolor on paper. Courtesy of James “Yaya” 
Hough and Worth Rises.
James “Yaya” Hough: How Big House Products Make Boxer Shorts, 2018, watercolor on paper. Courtesy of James “Yaya” 
Hough and Worth Rises.

In an artist statement accompanying I Am the Economy, Hough writes, “Human bodies, specifically those of color . . . are harshly and mechanically converted into cash by the prison industrial complex.” Hough’s paintings literalize this process, unearthing the engine of exploitation that fuels the prison system. 

ZS: I was deeply moved by one of the collaborative projects you describe, Life after Death and Elsewhere (2015), in which Robin Paris and Tom Williams had people on death row create memorials that would be, as you write, “counternarratives to the state’s official record of their condemnation to death.” But what interested me most about the project is the fact that two of the incarcerated people involved refused to contribute memorials, and instead made critiques of the project itself. There and elsewhere, you call into question the common assumption that art workshops and art practices are necessarily transformative for every incarcerated person. Considering that many programs around art-making in prison are created for incarcerated people by non-incarcerated people, how should this be taken into account?

NRF: It’s complicated. One artist told me, regarding a particular nonprofit, “When I’m working with this organization, it feels like slave labor”—obviously that’s very strong language—and that when he’s making art for himself, he feels like he’s free. But he’s also taking the resources available to him through that nonprofit and using them to foster his own creativity. So I think that often it’s not one or the other. 

These nonprofits really want to be doing work that is elevating or freeing people, but they’re completely dependent on their relationship to carceral systems. So there’s a messy relationality—and often the people who are doing the work understand the contradictions. But I do think that organizations can be much more transparent about resources, about different access to power, about how they’re benefiting. There can be more active processing around outcomes, about what all parties need or want to get out of these collaborations. I don’t think reflection provides an easy way out, but it’s still really important. 

All of this is a way to think about what I call “fraught imaginaries.” I think the imaginary world in punitive captivity is very different from outside it. Some of the collaborations that are led by incarcerated people are, I think, the more interesting ones. No matter how well-meaning you are, or how radical of an activist or abolitionist, your [sense of the world] is very different when you’re not held in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell.

Zoé Samudzi is a sociologist, art writer, and contributing writer for Jewish Currents.