28 December, 2020

Imprisoned Artists and Crafters, Rejoice!

Paging through a Blick Art Materials catalog, I feel like a kid in a candy store, clutching a thousand-dollar gift card. This shopping spree was made possible by two recent developments: a prison policy change and the first round of 2020 economic stimulus checks.

To the first of these we owe an interesting bit of happenstance. In my many years' imprisonment, I never before witnessed a wholesale administrative turnover like the past few months at ERDCC have seen. Within a couple of months we lost the warden, deputy warden, institutional activities coordinator, chaplain, recreation director, and education director. And that's just the positions that I know about.

Historically, someone assuming a position of authority in a correctional center tends to assert that authority in some significant, usually unpleasant way – getting rid of a privilege the prisoners enjoy, or curtailing movement around the institution. When the last warden of Crossroads Correctional Center assumed power, her first decrees cut recreation times in half and instituted mandatory institution-wide lockdowns when fistfights broke out. Subsequent years did nothing to save her reputation among the population.

ERDCC's recent changeover has been painless. Every change I've seen so far has been positive. The most inclusive of these actually has the potential to change people's whole outlook on life: an expansion of the prison's "in-cell hobby craft" procedure.

When I first came to this facility, two and a half years ago, I was amazed to learn that prisoners here could order colored pencils and drawing paper from outside venders. It was the most meaningful approach to facilitating prisoner self-improvement I'd ever seen. Then my friend Zach, who was at Crossroads with me, wrote and said that Western Missouri Correctional Center, the prison where he ended up, allows its residents to mail order supplies ranging from acrylic paint and calligraphy pens to glitter glue and cross-stitch stuff. Reading his letter, I very nearly got jealous.

There was no reason to get emotional. About a month ago, ERDCC started letting us send off for a slew of different arts-and-crafts supplies. Charcoal, paint, markers, glue, origami paper, sketch boards, yarn, crochet hooks, needlepoint hoops, puzzles, snap-together model kits, popsicle sticks and so much more – there's hardly any medium, or tools for working with it, that aren't at least partly permitted now. Best of all, government stimulus checks, as well as any government payments yet to come, guarantee that anyone who wants to create will be able to unleash that creativity.

In the good ol' bad ol' days, Missouri State Penitentiary ("the Walls," where a lot of old prisoners did time) offered options galore to the creatively inclined. A guy I knew who did time there used to build grandfather clocks. Another tooled leather for wallets, purses, and saddles. One friend and former cellmate of mine remembers etching glass and making Tiffany-style lamps. A display case showed visitors these goods, with price tags attached, so the creators could profit from their work. The days of prisoners' self-sufficiency are probably long gone, but ERDCC's enabling of people's creative ventures marks a major turn for the better.

The Blick catalog has pages upon pages of artists' pens. I think I'll order five.


Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.