Saturday, November 8, 2003 I was invited by collage artist Will Ursprung
to visit the maximum security prison at Graterford, Pennsylvania where
Will, who is also a psychologist, is in charge of the Art Therapy
It was an exciting
and challenging day. I met a number of talented inmate artists who
generously shared with me what art means to them in an environment
which places so many limits on individual freedom. I shared with them
my experiences as an artist. Together we explored what experiences
are different in prison and "on the street" and what experiences
are the same in both environments.
I was treated with great courtesy by everyone I met, guards, staff,
and inmates, alike. At
no time did I feel in danger, even though I was interacting with a
variety of men, some of whom society has judged to be so dangerous
that they have been sentenced to life without parole.
Among other things, my day at Graterford reminded me that our government
currently seeks to solve social problems by building more prisons
(or overcrowding the ones we already have) rather than by attempting
to remedy the root causes of those problems*. The disproportionate
number of inmates who were men of color or hispanic origin served
to remind me of the failure of our legal system to dispense justice
impartially. Most of the inmates, however, looked at things much more
personally, bravely accepting their responsibility for the actions
which led to their incarceration and rarely blaming others for the
circumstances in which they find themselves.
The artists I met were of various levels of expertise. Some were new
to art, finding in it an avenue of emotional escape from the surroundings
of their incarceration. Others had done art "on the outside"
before having been sent to prison. All made great efforts to be authentic
in their art-making and much of their work was wonderful.
I am grateful to Will, a signature member of the National Collage
Society, for having invited me to meet the artists in his program.
Many of their works, poems, and stories are well worth being added
to this webpage but I am not yet clear about whether or not I can
use their names and/or their works here. I know that no pictures could
be taken inside the prison and that is why you see Will and I, in
the photo above, outside the walls. If I get the OK from the authorities
I will add some inmate works to this page. In the meantime, let me
share with you just one of the many things which were affirmed for
me during my visit to Graterford... having committed a socially unacceptable
act does not mean that a person is inhuman, insensitive, or universally
disrespectful of his or her fellow human beings.
- - Jonathan Talbot, November 9, 2003
* I have recently heard that the number of people in US jails
on drug charges alone is more than the number of people incarcerated
on all charges in the European Union even though the European
Union's population exceeds ours by 100 million. - JT December 11,