Beauty Behind Bars

Art makes an impact for those on the inside.

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Thoughts of prison generally conjure images of concrete block and iron bars—hard structures housing hard men doing hard time. Yet Laura Pecenco, MA ’10, PhD ’15, is using art to break down this stigma, to better serve prison’s true aim of rehabilitation.

While a graduate student in sociology at UC San Diego, Pecenco’s research sharpened her eye to the intersection of prison, art and gender constructs. As an undergrad at UC Berkeley she volunteered in the local prison system and took a particular interest in doodles she noticed in the inmates’ notebooks. “I kept seeing things that I identified as feminine, 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?”

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Project PAINT founder, Laura Pecenco, MA ’10, PhD ’15, with some of her incarcerated students. Photos by Peter Merts.

With the support and encouragement of her graduate advisor, Mary Blair-Loy, along with other dedicated and artful individuals, the Prison Arts INiTiative, or Project PAINT, started as an offshoot of her dissertation and soon became a full-fledged social program. Using art to foster a more positive and rehabilitative environment, the program works with the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, and has helped 200 inmates over its four-year history, providing courses on drawing, painting and sculpture.

“By expressing themselves through art, inmates learn self-identity and, most importantly, empathy,” Pecenco says. “We tend to have this view of prison as places where men can’t show any emotion. Men seem to have this rulebook of what you can and cannot do, and if you do not act according to this hypermasculine imperative, then you can face very severe consequences.”

Case in point: When inmates sketched portraits of one another, they were able to stare at each other for extended periods of time without repercussion. Where such an act would normally result in a black eye or worse, the exercise relieved typical tensions and offered a unique way for prisoners to connect. Other projects like self-portraits allow for heavy introspection, as well as reflection and exploration of different parts of their identities.

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. 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 were 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 said 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.”

Project PAINT has transformed the lives of many individuals, both behind and beyond the prison bars. “It’s powerful,” Pecenco remarks. “One inmate told me that he finally reached out to his family by sending them some of his work, so now they’re talking again after six years apart.”

And although inmates are enclosed in a somber facility away from the rest of society, Project PAINT brings their artwork to the fore, celebrating accomplishment and building esteem. Works that emerge from Project PAINT are displayed around Donovan’s administration building, and murals are hung in each of the visiting rooms for families and friends to see. The inmates’ artwork is also often displayed at museums and galleries, 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.”

For Pecenco, it’s facilitating this kind of validation that sticks with her the most. “I have one student who regularly says, ‘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. 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.”