Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project

is a visual arts and humanities project that connects teaching artists and scholars to men at Stateville Maximum Security Prison through classes, workshops and guest lectures. Classes offered include subjects ranging from poetry, visual arts, and film study to political theory, social studies, and history. Classes are held once a week, on a 14 week semester schedule. Classes develop projects—visual art, creative writing and critical essays—with specific audiences and neighborhoods in mind. These works are then exhibited and read in neighborhood galleries and cultural centers. Over the course of an academic semester, artists and scholars on the inside and outside address key questions:
What can we learn from each other?
Who are our audiences?
What materials and methods best relate our concerns?
What can we say from inside a maximum security prison?

The arts and humanities have always provided essential vocabularies for discussing challenging topics and pushing the boundaries of our thinking. The goal of PNAP is to foster this kind of exploratory thinking with incarcerated people at Stateville, who have a wealth of knowledge and keen perspectives to share about the world around us.

History and Context:

Over the last twenty years, an absolute defunding of programming in prisons has occurred. Between 1953 and 1994, state and federal grants made art and higher education available to people in prison. Since the 1994 Crime Bill Act barred funding to incarcerated students access to higher education for people in prison has been nominal. Today, non-profit organizations and universities have stepped in where the state has retreated. In Illinois, even prison libraries have been defunded, leaving to volunteer groups the task of getting books to prisoners. Men at Stateville Maximum Security Prison, who have long sentences and are ordinarily confined to their cells for most hours of the day, are left with few outlets for educational and creative inquiry.

In this context, art and humanities programming in adult state prisons is rare. Programs that offer rigorous critiques and critical readings of texts and images take place in only a handful of prisons. Such programs serve as an indispensable opportunity for people in prison to both expand their cultural education, and improve their abilities to communicate complex ideas to others. For many years the late Dr. Margaret Burroughs volunteer-taught art and creative writing at Stateville Prison and left a true legacy there. Incarcerated men still talk about how her spirit and energy transformed them and encouraged them as artists and writers. Dr. Burroughs encouraged the men to think of their cells as their studio, thereby transforming their confinement, even if only for a few hours. Since Burroughs’ death in 2010, Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project has carried on her legacy and expanded her mission. P-NAP is committed to ensuring that arts programming continues to be offered at Stateville, and has for the first time coupled art-making with courses in history, literature and theory.