Beauty Behind Bars

For incarcerated men at Donovan State Prison, art is catharsis.

Project PAINT class at Donovan State Prison; July 2015. | Photo Credit: Peter Merts
Project PAINT class at Donovan State Prison; July 2015. | Photos: Peter Merts

Hypermasculinity and prison go hand-in-hand, both insinuating the same dark images of violence and confinement. Only allowing for an incredibly narrow definition of the male identity, hypermasculinity is a highly polarized gendered construct that pressures men into structures of dominance and aggression. It toxically manifests itself into various arenas of a patriarchal society, but it brews the greatest within the walls of prison. However, this prison plague has met its ultimate kryptonite, and it’s only a three-letter word: art. UC San Diego alumna Laura Pecenco, M.A. ’10, Ph.D. ’15, is implementing arts in prisons with Project PAINT (The Prison Arts INiTiative), deconstructing gendered homogeneity and fostering a more positive and safe environment for prison staff and inmates alike. By expressing their selves through art, inmates learn self-identity and most importantly, empathy.

Laura Pecenco, M.A. '10, Ph.D. '15, at Donovan State Prison.
Laura Pecenco, M.A. ’10, Ph.D. ’15, at Donovan State Prison.

“We tend to have this view of prison as hypermasculine,” Pecenco says. “If you turn on ‘Locked Up’ and TV shows like this, they really portray prisons as really violent places, places where men can’t show any emotion. Men really seem to have this rulebook of what you can and cannot do, and if you do not act appropriately according to this hypermasculine imperative, then you can face very severe consequences.”

Pecenco’s idea for Project PAINT came about during her dissertation research regarding the combination of prison, art and gender. During volunteer work at San Quentin Prison, Pecenco took interest in doodles she would come across in the inmates’ notebooks. “I just kept seeing things that I identified as feminine, and so I wondered, how can we have this sort of duality? How can we have a hypermasculine place where supposedly men have to be tough and put on this sort of mask, but then, on the other hand, here they are creating art that does not share that same sentiment?”

Although defunded in 2010, the state of California’s Arts in Corrections program—a partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—was the main source of funding for prison arts programs. Pecenco was nevertheless interested in conducting an ethnography to discover more about incarcerated men creating art. “I was in this position of either having to massively change what I had envisioned for my dissertation, or I had to get creative and start a program,” says Pecenco. She went with latter—before Arts in Correction returned as a “pilot program” in 2014, Project PAINT was completely volunteer-run. Pecenco would hope for the best as she scurried through every Home Depot in San Diego asking for material and financial donations. Eventually, with the support and encouragement of her graduate advisor, Professor Mary Blair-Loy, and other dedicated and artful individuals, Pecenco’s dream of Project PAINT became a reality. What began as merely the topic of her dissertation evolved into an extremely rewarding and grander scheme.


Project PAINT caters to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional facility, the only state prison in San Diego county prison located just 1.5 miles from the Mexico-United States border. The program consists of two 16-week courses, serving 50 inmates in Yard D of the prison. Project PAINT takes inmates through instruction on drawing, painting, sculpture and critical group critiques.

Each project in the program bears its own unique purpose. In an activity where inmates had to sketch portraits of one another, the men did something that would never usually be permitted without consequence: stare at each other for extended periods of time. In the hypermasculine prison’s imaginary rulebook, doing so would cost them at least a black eye. However, the activity acted as an exception, relieving typical tensions and offering a unique way for prisoners to connect. Other projects, like self-portraits, allow the inmates to indulge in heavy introspection, reflecting and exploring different parts of their identity, and hopefully helping them to realize what issues they need to cure.

Regardless of the prison’s “maximum security” inmates, some whom are serving life sentences, Pecenco values the uniquely intimate bond they share. “It’s really nice to sort of develop a community there,” she adds. “We have people who have been in the program for 2.5 years. It’s really supportive, and nice to keep it in the place that we started.”

Pecenco and her team must naturally consider the dangerous possibilities of being in a high-risk environment, keeping safety and security at the top of their priority list. For one, they count the pencils and colored pencils multiple times before and after the art sessions, for the possibility that the seemingly innocent art utensils could be used as deadly weapons. They must pass through a series of security tests and gates before entering the room. But for Pecenco, how powerful the program has proven to be overrides any fear she may face. Even in the most nerve-wracking situations in which inmates had a chance to threaten everyone’s safety, Pecenco discovered quite the opposite—instead of advancing towards dangerous behaviors, the inmates made the Project PAINT staff feel at ease.

“In one instance, we were in our room and suddenly the door slammed shut. And it’s a door that we have to keep open at all times because it locks from the inside. I had this moment of panic. My heart just dropped.” A similar situation produced the same frightening emotion for Pecenco: “We were in a different room, and suddenly the power went out at the prison and we were in complete darkness. I just couldn’t see anything—it was complete black. And I was surrounded, on either side of me I had prisoners. It all happened so fast because I remember thinking, if anything happens, this is the moment that it’s going to happen.” Ready to trigger the handheld alarm she keeps with her at all times, Pecenco was shocked yet relieved to hear the comforting voices of the prisoners, guiding her in direction through the darkness. “On your left” or “on your right,” the invisible inmates would say as they created a mental visual map for the Project PAINT staff. Pecenco remembers,“It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced, but also one of the most comforting things I’ve ever experienced. In those moments I really had a sense that they do care about the program. Because if something was going to happen, that was their chance, and they chose to be outstanding citizens and protect the program and make sure that nothing happened to us.”

Project PAINT participants are not chosen upon random selection, but through a screening process that helps Pecenco filter through the inmates’ motives for applying to the program. To some extent, the process helps guarantee the inmates’ dedication.

“I tell this to every [staff member] who comes in for the first time: you should be scared, you should be nervous. This is not a place to drop your guard. I definitely emphasize that it’s always important to remember that security is very essential, but I also think that the desire of the participants to almost prove themselves in a way, to show that they are good people, that they can reform and be members of society… I think that trumps everything else.”

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Project PAINT has proven to powerfully transform the lives of many incarcerated men, both behind and beyond prison bars. For many of the program participants, especially those who are spending life in prison, art is their only escape. For those who have a couple years to serve, Project PAINT has opened up many avenues for them. “It’s powerful,” Pecenco remarks. “One guy was just telling me the other day that he finally reached out to his family who he hasn’t talked to in 6 years, so now they’re talking again.”

And although enclosed in a drab facility away from the rest of society, Project PAINT makes the prisoners feel as if they are again human, valued and a part of a greater cause. Artwork that emerges from Project PAINT is displayed around Donovan’s administration building, and a grassy knoll outside the building serves as a sculpture garden. Murals are hung in each of the visiting rooms for families and friends to see. The inmates’ artwork is also often displayed at museums, including the Oceanside Museum of Art. “Exhibiting their art makes them feel like they’re part of something; they share that with people they love.”

The impact of Project PAINT follows the inmates wherever they go, even once released from prison. The program serves to reduce recidivism—instead of returning to their communities after their release and engaging in the same criminal behavior, prison arts programs like Project PAINT prove to keep former inmates away from the same cycle of incarceration. For many ex-cons, engaging in the arts through Project PAINT helped them learn healthy strategies of cathartic release. Additionally, involvement with Project PAINT grants inmates a skillset necessary for a job, such as collaboration and communication.

According to Pecenco, it’s the impact that sticks with her the most. “There’s actually this one guy in the class who will mention regularly, ‘Laura, remember when I could only draw stick figures?’ His smile is just the best thing ever to me. He’s just so proud of himself. And he really is an amazing artist. I love that moment, that sense of, ‘look at what I accomplished’. I really do think it has an impact far and above any other.”