Bridging the Opportunity Divide

What Prison Inmates Want You to See About Their World

November 14, 2014
What Prison Inmates Want You to See About Their World
Mark Strandquist asked prisoners to draw what life behind bars is like. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Does art have the potential to change our incarceration system?

We can all picture bars and razor wire fences, but if we haven’t actually been in prison ourselves, it’s hard to imagine what life inside is like. What’s really happening in there? What would the people incarcerated offer people to see? These are the questions that artist and activist Mark Strandquist wants to help answer.

He sent 2,500 American inmates a blank postcard with these words printed at the top:

If you could create a window in the prison walls, what would you want the world to see? Please draw, describe or create an image that represents your window.

The responses range from innocent and precious to haunting and forlorn. One, from Alfred Espinoza, depicts a man sitting at a desk in an otherwise empty classroom with a blank chalk board and a ball-and-chain around his ankle, crystallizing so much of what is wrong with the prison ethos in America. In a letter to PBS Newshour, Espinoza says, “We are always learning something regardless of our circumstances in here.”

Strandquist started the postcard project through Prison Health News, a newsletter published quarterly by Philadelphia FIGHT, a nonprofit AIDS advocacy organization. According to PBS, the newsletter provides “medical information, news and personal stories and poems submitted by current and former prisoners for an audience of thousands of people in prison.”

The postcards are actually an extension of another project of Strandquist’s — Windows From Prison — which, starting in 2012, posed a similar question to prisoners and incarcerated youth: “If you could have a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?” The artist then set out to photograph the scenes inmates described, some of which were published in Prison Health News.

“It’s a complex conversation we’re trying to have in a small area,” Strandquist says. “It’s amazing that just a tiny flimsy piece of paper could be infused with so much history, ideas, struggles and beautiful reflections on life and love — the piece of paper becomes so incredibly powerful.”

Let’s hope that power can help lead to a more humane prison system.