Beautifully crafted leather wallets and stunning still life paintings. Hauntingly realistic charcoal sketches and exquisitely hand carved furniture; this craft sale is much like any other, except each piece exhibited has been lovingly created by an inmate serving at the largest maximum security prison in the US, Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary. Over one weekend in April and every Sunday in October, the prison opens its doors to the public and hosts the Inmate Hobbycraft Sale, which runs alongside the better-known Angola Prison Rodeo.
It’s not your average venue for a craft fair. Angola was once known as “The Bloodiest Prison in the South”, thanks to the sheer scale of violent incidences that took place during the ’60s and ’70s. It houses rapists and murderers. It’s a place where approximately 97% of its inmates will never be released, so art is one of the only forms of escapism left available to most of those incarcerated. One inmate draws on inspiration for his still life from photographs sent to him from family and friends, another on memories of wildlife and nature while another recalls the art lessons his mother used to give him as a child.
“Art is encouraged as a productive way of using time,” Kerry Myers, an inmate and editor-in-chief of the inmate-run magazine The Anglolite, reveals. “There is a competition twice each year on the first day of the rodeo, for artists and craftsmen to enter their creations in any number of categories – paintings of different medium, metalwork, woodwork and carving, jewellery, leather, glass etching, wood-burning and more.” Minimum security inmates – known as ‘trustees’ – are free to mingle with the public at the event, but maximum security prisoners are kept away.
Selling at the fair, which attracts buyers in their thousands, is more than a creative outlet though, with many inmates relying on the proceeds to provide for their families as well as a means of sourcing more art materials. “This is a business for them,” says former assistant warden Cathy Fontenot. “They can send a lot of this money home. We’ve had some inmates send it to victims’ organisations. I personally loved when they did that. They provide for themselves so their families don’t have to throughout the year. It gives them a sense of responsibility.”
Without the relevant materials, creating anything can be a daunting prospect – but not one that cannot be overcome, says Dennis Sobin, director of Safe Streets Art Foundation, an organisation supporting inmate artists. “Some of our most beautiful pieces are in pen and pencil, done on 8.5-by-11-inch paper, and, at times, on the scraps or on the backs of grievance forms – any kind of paper they can get,” says Sobin, a former inmate. “If you have nothing more than a pencil and paper, you can write books, you can make art, you can create whatever you want.”
Safe Streets helps enable the exhibiting and selling of the inmate art, as well as offering tuition to inmates to help hone their craft. “We provide an escape from prison,” adds Sobin. “We allow people to create their own world through their writing, through their art… and then the prison walls disappear.”