A work by prisoner Eric Anderson Credit: Courtesy of Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project

When people think of prisoners, they often think of people who committed horrible crimes and deserve to rot away in jail. They’re less likely to think about the emotional, familial, and social consequences of long-term sentences, some as lengthy as 70 or 80 years.

The Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP) seeks to connect prisoners at Stateville Correctional Center, near Joliet, to the outside world by offering humanities courses in which inmates work with artists and scholars to create projects that educate the public on topics that normally stay behind prison walls. In this case, the topic is long-term sentencing.

“The Long Term,” the latest exhibition created by PNAP, utilizes different media to raise awareness about long-term sentencing policies and the effects they have on inmates. “This has been a two-year project where we think about long-term sentencing,” says Sarah Ross, codirector of arts and exhibitions for PNAP. “We encouraged the teachers to come up with assignments in their classes surrounding the impact of long-term sentencing, focusing not only on the sentencing policy itself but the effects it has on people.”

The exhibition includes a 13-minute hand-drawn animation made by artists who are serving long-term sentences. In the video, the artists combine personal narratives and research to describe the severity and impact of long-term sentencing, for example, the loss of connection to family members and friends and the struggle of raising kids from inside prison walls. The video also takes notice of the hardships that inmates face after being released, such as struggling to reconnect with family after years away.

Other pieces in the exhibition include video interviews with inmates about the effects of long-term sentencing and another with a mother about raising a son who’s serving a life sentence. The interviews offer more insight into how inmates are affected by these sentences, whether it be positive, like the bonds formed in prison, or negative, like the structural inequities faced after prison when struggling to find housing or employment.

Damon Locks, a visual artist and codirector of art and exhibitions for PNAP, says that though long-term sentencing policies are discussed in the media, the effects on the inmates and their families need to be addressed too. “A lot of people don’t think about how long-term sentencing creates a long-term struggle for freedom and a long-term loss in communities.”

The exhibit opened at the Washington Park Arts Incubator on Friday, September 21, and inspired a discussion among visitors about the reality of long-term sentencing and the importance of education to keep the inmates feeling connected to the community.

“One of the drivers behind this is trying to build knowledge about things that usually stay behind a wall,” says Ross. “Our project is trying to use art as a way to ask questions and build knowledge about things that keep us so segregated.”   v