When Building a Prison Cell

As Bun and I enthusiastically chatted in the front seats of my Yaris, I glanced in the rearview mirror to make sure Kelsey’s eyes hadn’t glazed over from our construction-talk. 

“So you used the ¼-inch OSB for both the outer and inner walls?”

My eyes flipped back to the road. “Yeah, I thought it would be a better texture for a concrete look. It was also more manageable and cost-effective than using drywall.”

Bun sighed. “Yeah, I used drywall for my version, and now I can’t salvage it.” 

“Hmmm.” I nodded. “I changed many parts of the wall construction from a traditional wall build. The studs are two feet apart, for example.”

“That’s a good idea. Save on lumber and still has some structural integrity.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

Bun had been my guiding light during the build. Other than answering my long string of emails and phone call questions, he had extensive construction experience and–having served time at San Quentin–we were creating a prison cell from his memory and diagrams. I needed to rely on him, not just for the specs of the project, but for the aesthetic touches and props included. This car ride was the first time we had met one another in person. Up until that point, we only knew one another from video calls. 

Kelsey smiled at us from the backseat and commented on how excited we both seemed. Kelsey had invited me to lead the project about a month before the opening. When she originally called, she explained that there would be a show at the University of Chicago for Mourning Our Losses, and they were looking for someone to build a 1:1 ratio prison cell. Bun had already made the walls for a cell in San Francisco, but moving it would have cost more than building a new cell in Chicago. Having volunteered for MOL during the pandemic, I was already familiar with their work. The exhibition would highlight their advocacy, the art of currently incarcerated artists from around the country, and works by gifted quilt artist Dorothy Burge. Specifically, the exhibit would focus on the extensive and devastating effects of Covid on prison populations across the country. This cell would demonstrate the cramped conditions in which many incarcerated people lived. 

As we arrived at the Logan Center for the Arts, the three of us waddled in with the weight of multiple bags of props to install in the cell space. We had less than an hour to install before the opening, and we transformed the cell in that short period. Bun and I wrinkled the sheets of the beds, stocked the locker with commissary items, and placed towels and shower shoes, bars of soap, and various objects to make the space look lived-in. 

While cutting a towel in half to create a makeshift doormat, Dorothy Burge and Michelle Daniel Jones approached us. Michelle, who curated the show, stood silently for a few seconds and then asked, “You were allowed to have canned goods in your cell?”

“Oh, yeah,” Bun said, “although they were in the process of changing that when I was leaving.”

“I see.” Michelle’s eyebrow raised slightly. “We weren’t allowed to have anything like that.”

Michelle had been just as much of a help to me as Bun. She worked with me several times during the installation in the weeks leading up to the opening, giving me feedback based on her experiences. She thought the outside of the cell would be more impactful if the repetition of the bars on the cell door wrapped around the sides and the exterior walls were gray like the inside to make it look like a solid block of concrete: 

Bun strung a line across the beds and hung a couple of masks and socks to look like they were drying. Almost hesitantly, Dorothy spoke up:

“Are the beds really that thin?”

Bun glanced over, “Yes, definitely.”

The ‘mattresses’ themselves were made from two-inch thick sheets of insulation foam board wrapped with fabric. They really were quite thin. 

Dorothy tsked. “That’s awful.”

“It’s definitely hard if you’re a bigger guy,” Bun said. 

Not only were the mattresses thin, but they were smaller than your average twin mattress. Only 3 x 6 feet with a foot of space on either end. If you were to sit up on the bed, your head would graze the top bunk or the ceiling, depending on which bunk you sat. The locker placement, which Bun called a ‘knee breaker,’ made it even worse, as it was placed only about a foot above the top bunk. If you were to lie down, your legs would slide underneath the locker with very little room for you to turn over:

By the time Bun had finished furnishing the space, it indeed looked lived in, and the small, 6 x 8-foot cell even looked cluttered. I already had difficulty maneuvering in the area before adding props, but now it was nearly impossible. It was rather apparent to me early on how small the cell was. I don’t consider myself particularly tall, but I couldn’t imagine living in such cramped conditions–especially if I were trying to avoid an illness as contagious as Covid. It made me think back to the advocacy work Kelsey and I had done during the summer of 2020 when Covid was raging. At that time, I drew representations of the cells at Indiana Women’s Prison to illustrate an article. The women were living in hazardous and unhealthy conditions that summer. To prevent the spread of Covid, the large concrete doors of their ‘cottages’ were shut, and they spent up to 20 hrs per day inside. Without running water or access to toilets in their cells, the women were forced to urinate in cups and trash cans. Many passed out due to the extreme heat they were also experiencing that summer. The entire ordeal was a dangerous and gross injustice, and, still, many got sick. 

After throwing the last of the power tools in my hatchback and wiping the developing perspiration from my face, I jogged back inside for a few group photographs with the Mourning Our Losses crew. By the time we finished going through the last of our camera phones, we had taken a good few shots, we were sure, and entered back into the gallery. This time we joined a large group of people who had already congregated in the center of the space, mirroring Dorothy Burdge’s quilted figures suspended from the ceiling. This sight made me recognize the layout of the room. What was initially designed to be a reverse panopticon with the cell at its center was instead a parade of faces that took up the center of the room, something like a choir:

Around the perimeter of the gallery were poems and artwork. Outside the cell on an information table screwed into the wall beneath the observation window was a series of QR codes that lead visitors to recordings of family members remembering their recently departed loved ones. Appearing there in big, bold letters: “DeCedrick remembers his son DeAvon. Demitrice remembers Baldy Scott, Big Spank, and G Jones. Raul remembers Joseph Wilson (Big Fella). Reginald remembers Ladell Henderson. Rodney remembers Kareem…” It was at that moment that I realized not only had we made a prison cell but also a tomb: a mausoleum for those lost to Covid. Above the QR codes read:

“Solitary Deaths

COVID is here!

We all saw it with fear. 

Each day our movements are constricted,

News flash of death around the world.

As the days pass into weeks,

The nights are filled with the screams, Man Down!

In the morning we found out who left last night.

We heard that folks with COVID were being locked up in solitary and dying alone.

As the news flash of deaths, we pray for our families.

There was not communication with our families or loved ones. 

With no care and inhumane treatment,

We are left to die alone.”

It now made sense why so many avoided the elephant in the room. This looming, gray cube was the foil to the vibrant life the drawings and quilts emitted. This juxtaposition reminded me of the Solitary Garden plot at UC Santa Cruz, where various plants grow, surrounding a similar 6 x 9-foot concrete slab. While meant to be liberatory in its lack of walls, it also mimicked a gravesite where cell door bars stand in for a tombstone. While our cell breathed evidence of life, this part of the room also exhaled death.

I had spent so much time and effort wrapped up in the details and building of the cell that I hadn’t really prepared for the responses I received that evening. While I expected it in some ways to function as an educational tool, I underestimated the emotional impact it would have on some of the visitors. But it was from these interactions that I quickly gleaned its power as a symbol and the power of what working collaboratively can do. It was by working with Bun, my Dad, Michelle, Marcus, and Kelsey that the cell held as much potency as it did. From the sharing of carceral experience to the understanding of wall-building, to the artistic vision of the piece, and the know-how of set design, the project found its life in Us.

As we were leaving for the night, I took a last look at the gallery, and I noticed several mothers standing under their sons’ quilted images. They took photos and embraced Dorothy, thanking her for her work. One of the quilts used the same striped fabric that I had used for the mattresses in the cell, which echoed the bars that held their sons captive. Not wanting to intrude on their intimacy, I slid out the side exit and was left with that afterimage. I was also left with a strong and radical sense of hope that these mothers would someday be reunited with their children.

This cell was an installation in Makes Me Wanna Holla: Art, Death and Imprisonment at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts (July 7 – September 10, 2023) featuring 2023 “Artist for the People” Practitioner Fellows Dorothy Burge and Michelle Daniel Jones with Mourning Our Losses, presented by Logan Center Exhibitions, Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and Pozen Center Human Rights Lab at the University of Chicago.

Ruth is an artist, educator/student, and advocate from Indiana, now in the Chicago area for the last decade, where they teach painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and live with their cats Amos and Cheesecake. Ruth is a forever-student of Religious Studies with focused research on the intersections between art/craft, American history, gender, and rural environments. Their artwork explores the mediums of paint, embroidery, screenprinting, ceramics, and performance to dismantle colonial imagery in imagined and real spaces. They have art displayed at DePauw University and North Central College and have shown work at the New York Academy of Art and Indiana University. Ruth’s previous work has led them to teach and mentor at-risk youth, advocate for Indiana Women’s Prison, provide tutoring services for Dixon Correctional, and create memorials for Mourning Our Losses. In addition to this work, Ruth enjoys reading, writing, and playing music.