ABOUT US

The Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP) is a visual arts and education project that connects teaching artists and scholars to incarcerated students at Stateville Maximum Security Prison through classes, workshops, a policy think tank, and guest lectures. Classes cover subjects ranging from poetry, visual arts, and creative writing to political theory, social studies, and history. PNAP also offers a tuition-free degree-granting program at Stateville in partnership with the University Without Walls at Northeastern Illinois University. Our classes serve as an indispensable opportunity for our students to connect with artists, scholars, and writers from the region, expand their cultural and political education, and communicate complex ideas. PNAP courses develop projects—visual art, creative writing, and critical essays—which are the basis for exhibitions, events, and publications that are shared both within and across the walls of the prison.

OUR MISSION & VALUES

The mission of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project is to build relationships of reciprocity that bring artists, scholars, and writers together with incarcerated people and our communities. We believe that access to education and art is a fundamental human right with the capacity to transform people, systems, and futures. 

At PNAP:
1. We are committed to building collaborative relationships with people who are incarcerated, their supporters, and communities.

2. We offer courses that introduce students to creative and critical practices, materials, techniques, and skills that can deepen and enlarge their capacities to give expression to their experience and understanding of the world of which we are a part.

3. We believe in developing curricula linked to the life experiences, stated needs, and expressed interests of students. Our educational practice assumes that the classroom operates as a site of collective learning, one in which instructors and students are involved in reciprocal exchange. Thus all participants are expected to contribute, and everyone is recognized as a teacher as well as a learner.

4. We are committed to building relationships with the communities on the outside to which those behind bars belong. We understand the art exhibitions and programming that we create outside of prison to be essential components of our work, which acknowledges that those behind bars retain an integral and vital link to communities, neighborhoods, and families.

5. We understand this work as an intervention in a carceral continuum in which a current focus on criminality and punishment is misplaced. The prison industrial complex removes people from vital systems and networks of support without adequately taking into account the social, economic, and political structures that produce the many conditions of which crime is but a symptom.

6. We also recognize that the practice of mass criminalization – especially the locking up of young Black and Brown men – is connected to our broken education system. The school-to-prison pipeline, the increasing privatization of public education, the emergence
of a for-profit educational sector, and the exorbitant cost of much higher education all contribute to conditions of educational apartheid. These conditions shift resources away from those who have the greatest needs and transform education into a commodity reserved for those who can afford it. We recognize that these exclusionary practices fundamentally depend on the criminalization of poverty, which justifies and explains away the incarceration of poor people, while devaluing their contributions and denying their potential.

7. We believe in a world in which art and education are for everyone, everywhere.

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HISTORY

PNAP started in 2011 with two classes, Art and Poetry, which were led by Anthony Madrid, Nadya Pittendrigh, Tess Landon, Fred Sasaki, and Sarah Ross. In the next semester we expanded to include other humanities courses. Instructors were Jill Petty, Erica Meiners, Gabriel Villa, Daniela Olszewska, Ben Almassi, and Nick Smaligo. In 2012 we held our first exhibition and a series of public education events at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Since that time, our class offerings have grown to 15 non-credit classes a year. Our commitment to non-credit classes has been supported and articulated by our students in prison who feel that access to general education and art has been a critical gateway to higher education. PNAP has expanded our work to include a policy think tank and a degree program (both started in 2017).

From both state and national perspectives, an almost absolute defunding of programming in prisons has occurred in recent decades. Between 1953 and 1994, state and federal grants made art and higher education available to people in prison. However, the 1994 Crime Bill barred funding to incarcerated students, and since then access to higher education for people in prison has been nominal at best. More recently, a limited and temporary return of federal Pell grant funding has opened some opportunities for higher education in prison, but it is still very limited. Today, non-profit organizations and universities have stepped in where the state has retreated.

For many years, the late Dr. Margaret Burroughs volunteer-taught art and creative writing at Stateville. Dr. Burroughs had a profound impact on the lives of her incarcerated students, encouraging them to think of their cells as their studios, thereby transforming their confinement—if only for a few hours. Since Burroughs’s death in 2010, PNAP has sought to carry on this legacy and expand Dr. Burroughs’s mission.