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Stateville art students designed the mural in Washington Park to honor Margaret Burroughs, the celebrated artist, poet and co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History.

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Students at Stateville prison find empowerment, hope in arts education

“We’ve been given a platform to have our hidden voices heard and our invisibility made visible to the outside,” said student Reginald BoClair.

When Darrell Fair first arrived at Stateville Correctional Center in 2003, he felt a profound lack of purpose.

The men’s maximum-security state prison in Crest Hill offered few options to fill his days aside from his daily jogs, a habit from his time in the Marine Corps.

“The atmosphere here was void of hope and bursting with despair and gloom. The only time that anyone ever left was either via disciplinary transfer or death,” Fair said via email from Stateville.

But the culture eventually started to change. One of the reasons was the Prison and Neighborhood Arts and Education Project, an organization founded in 2011 that teaches arts and humanities classes to the men incarcerated at Stateville.

The project, also called PNAP, started with two classes in art and poetry and has since grown to offer incarcerated students 15 college-level arts and humanities courses that include the fundamentals of visual arts, poetry, alternative justice systems, violence prevention and observational astronomy.

PNAP also provides art workshops and operates a think tank focused on advocating for better policies around incarceration. Its faculty are a mix of independent artists and professors from Chicago universities, including Northeastern Illinois University, University of Illinois Chicago, Northwestern University and University of Chicago.

The first class Fair took with PNAP was art, installation and portraiture in 2014. One of the projects was to create a self-portrait based on their ID photos from the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“At that time we weren’t allowed to take photos of ourselves, not even while visiting with family. So our families didn’t have photos of us except the IDOC website photo,” Fair said. “For our class, we created these stylized versions of our IDOC pictures — we used exaggerated colors, lines, and they were several feet tall.”

The portraits were exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center in 2016. Fair’s portrait was later selected as the cover of the April 2016 edition of the Poetry Foundation’s magazine.

“In essence, we were still able to be socially relevant and impactful from our carceral system,” Fair said.

Changing perceptions

Erica Meiners, one of the founders and co-director of university curriculum for PNAP, said art and education should be free for everyone and available everywhere.

“Our goal is to challenge people’s perceptions across the spectrum, people inside and outside, about incarceration and what accountability looks like,” Meiners said. “How do people participate in repair? How do people be accountable for the harm they’ve done? And what does it mean for them to contribute to community and to change?”

In addition to classes, PNAP partners with outside organizations to put on events, exhibits, murals and film screenings of the students’ work.

One such effort is a mural project in which Stateville art students conceptualize a design that’s then painted by collaborators on the outside. They’ve created murals around Chicago, including one in Washington Park to honor Margaret Burroughs, the celebrated artist and poet and co-founder of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center.

Burroughs once taught art and creative writing classes at Stateville, and PNAP was founded in honor of her legacy, Meiners said.

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When the artists at Stateville weren’t allowed to take photographs, artists like Darrell Fair used their Department of Corrections ID’s as the basis for self-portraits, which were exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center in 2016.

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“The message of these murals is focused on the erasure of Black and brown communities into prisons,” Meiners said. “These are critical, life-affirming murals that really try and celebrate the work of Black and brown communities to build freedom and build resistance.”

In July, PNAP held a poetry event outside the Field Museum at the Mending Wall, a public art project from the museum, Chicago Park District and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Women who recently got out of prison read poetry written by men in a poetry program at Stateville supported by the Poetry Foundation.

“We’re really committed to this cultural production work — poetry, murals, exhibitions, films, dialogues — because we feel that culture-changing work is really changing people’s relationships to prisons and policing,” Meiners said.

“We think that education is for everyone and art for everyone everywhere is imperative — but also so is freedom.”

University Without Walls

The college-level classes offered by PNAP follow a traditional academic year of three semesters. Students have the option to take a class or to work toward a bachelor’s degree through University Without Walls, or UWW, a degree-granting partnership between PNAP and Northeastern Illinois University.

Students enrolled in UWW can put credits from prior learning toward their degree.

“These are adults with a ton of credits or prior college-level learning, and we try to acknowledge and reward that as a program. So that way they don’t have to start like a typical 18-year-old at a more traditional college program,” Meiners said.

“Some people actually don’t want a degree, they just want to keep learning, especially some of our artists, who just want to keep being connected to other artists and have the ability to produce material,” she said.

PNAP also started a pilot program in the last year that offers courses to women at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois.

Reginald BoClair, another incarcerated student at Stateville, is a writer and a poet. The 56-year-old has taken 20 classes with PNAP and earned his bachelor’s through UWW last year.

While other well-intentioned organizations have come into Stateville to offer help, BoClair said PNAP has succeeded in ways those groups haven’t.

“Freedom” poem/PNAP

“Freedom”


by Reginald BoClair

Freedom,

What does that mean to me?

Does it mean all at once,

eternally?

Is it paradise

or pair of eyes

looking upon the children?

Is it Africa

telling me to remember?

Perpetual, continuous motion

focused on the promotion

of life

Life unto life

not pain or strife

Does it mean

a balanced harmonious reciprocal state of being?

Meanwhile,

my third eye seeing

beyond the material attached aesthetic

To a place of unfetteredness

Pure and clear

yet bare

of the scars of construct

as I deduct

the lessons learned

Freedom means to me

I be uninhibited

Visionary and social in my living

Even if my liberation is incomplete radical theory

still hear me.

This is what freedom means to me.

“PNAP is quite the revelation,” BoClair said over email from Stateville. “Being involved in the program has exposed us to new, exciting and deep, thought-provoking ideas and information. Ideas like abolition, Black feminism, transformative justice, restorative justice, gender, heteropatriarchy, anti-Blackness, radical social change.”

Students are able to bring their own lived experiences to the classroom, BoClair said, and they’re given the tools to express what they learn through art, poetry and writing.

“Through PNAP we’ve been given a platform to have our hidden voices heard and our invisibility made visible to the outside as counter-narratives to the stories and images used to condition society to the normalcy of racialized and punitive economics of confinement,” BoClair said.

‘Art is limitless’

Fair, who is 55 years old, earned his bachelor’s degree through UWW in 2019. He’s now in his second year of a master’s degree at North Park University.

“PNAP saw value in individuals in custody with long-term sentences,” Fair said. “PNAP went contrary to the status quo and chose to invest in the humanity of individuals serving long terms.”

At first, Fair said that investment was tough to get used to for some of the incarcerated students.

“You had these outsiders who believed in you when you hardly believed in yourself, especially since the process of conviction is, by design, geared to dehumanize you. You stand there while the state and judge eviscerate you, and then the judge validates your worthlessness with an unfathomable sentence. So, some — a lot — of repair work is needed,” Fair said.

PNAP has taught Fair the value of building community and achieving liberation through education.

“It’s something transformative when another human being sees your humanity. Not to mention when your creative voice, art, poetry is taken back to the community,” Fair said. “After being told you’re part of the problem, you’re now being shown that you’re actually part of the solution.”

Fair has been an artist since that first class in 2014, working in animation, acrylic paints, prints, colored pencils, charcoal and ink. He has taken 20 PNAP classes so far and served as a teacher’s aide last spring.

Fair said that his art has helped him to cope with his incarceration, which began more than 20 years ago. He says he was tortured for 30 hours into confessing to a shooting in 1998, and in 2013 the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission found his claims credible. The Illinois Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Fair’s wrongful conviction case in October.

“Art for me is liberating. I’m able to transcend these 35-foot concrete and steel reinforced walls. I’m able to speak to my community and humanity. With art I’m able to invoke questions, elicit smiles, warm hearts and touch souls and lift spirits,” Fair said.

“I like art because it speaks a universal language. Art makes me feel liberated, too. Because art is limitless.”

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