6 Artists Imagine What a World without Prisons Looks Like

Artsy Editorial
Sep 26, 2019 9:49PM

Sonja Henderson, The Harbor for Mending Hearts , 2019. Photo by Tony Favarula. Courtesy of the artist and Illinois Humanities.

Over the past two years, Chicago artists and locals have turned to art to consider criminal justice reform. Through the initiative Envisioning Justice, run by the nonprofit Illinois Humanities, artists convened with individuals and organizations of seven Chicago communities that have been deeply affected by mass incarceration. Together, they discussed the harmful effects of incarceration, imagined what a just legal system would look like, and harnessed creativity to develop strategies to work towards such a healthy reality. The culmination of their work is now on view in the exhibition “Envisioning Justice” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here, six participating artists share their work and discuss what a world without prisons would look like, in their own words.

Maria Gaspar, For Radioactive: Stories from Beyond the Wall, 2017–19. Photo by Tony Favarula. Courtesy of the artist and Illinois Humanities.


“For Radioactive: Stories from Beyond the Wall (2017–19), I led workshops over the course of two years inside [Cook County Jail] and developed work with incarcerated men, collectively called the Radioactive Ensemble. We imagined what objects within the jail would say if they could speak, employing fiction as a means to amplify the silenced stories that exist behind the wall. At the culminating public event, we projected animations and broadcast sound works through the city’s independent radio station. We aimed to transgress the wall, to dissolve the concrete barrier that dehumanizes on both sides of its faces by transmitting stories from inside the jail through the wall and into airwaves of the city. As community members gathered outside the jail to watch and listen, they spoke fiercely and compassionately about the ways that the wall, the jail, and the prison industrial complex tear us apart.

“I envision a world where we gather together and use our collective power to dismantle incarceration. In this future, we occupy a city of tender compassion, of fugitive study, and of walls turned sideways. As a member of the Radioactive Ensemble who was locked up at the time stated: ‘We are alive, and we are charged’—and in our fused power, we can re-imagine a free city.”

Sonja Henderson

Sonja Henderson, The Harbor for Mending Hearts , 2019. Photo by Tony Favarula. Courtesy of the artist and Illinois Humanities.

“The Harbor for Mending Hearts (2019) is a safe, nurturing tent space made of quilts, which offers the chance to stitch lives and lineage back together. There is a long and beautiful history of women healing, creating, and processing through sewing, quilting, and ‘mending’ together. We now live in a world where people’s bodies are policed, trafficked, harmed, and murdered due to race or skin tone. The mothers who helped sew the tent walls used collage, appliqué, drawing, and quilting techniques to create mixed-media quilt squares telling the story of their child’s death due to police brutality, street and state violence. Our sewing circles gave the mothers the opportunity to express and process their grief in an entirely new way. They immediately began to heal with every stitch, telling the story of their child’s importance, beauty, accomplishments, and dreams.”

Sarah Ross, Prison + Neighborhood Art Project

Sarah Ross, The Long Term, 2018–19. Photo by Tony Favarula. Courtesy of the artist and Illinois Humanities.

“A future without prison is a future where there are resources available to everyone who needs them. Without prison, harm is not punished, it’s transformed by communities that hold the state and each other accountable. Harm is actively addressed, survivors are heard, and their needs are met. Creating conditions so that harm does not happen again is at work every day in a future without prisons.

“One of the works I contributed to in the show, The Long Term (2018–19), reflects on the system that we currently have that throws away people and, in the process, wrecks families and physically changes the makeup of our neighborhoods. Through narratives of the artists serving life and long-term sentences, we hear stories about how prison shapes subjectivities and cancels out hope. We listen to people who might have created harm, but they are not, for the rest of their lives, harmful people.”

Tonika Johnson

Tonika Johnson, Belonging. Photo by Tony Favarula. Courtesy of the artist and Illinois Humanities.

“Before most people can even envision a world without prisons, their minds must be expanded to include having empathy for others who’ve had a different lived experience from their own, which is hard, emotional, and deeply personal work. Challenging ourselves to meaningfully acknowledge that prisons are in fact an extension of our country’s ugly history of racist policies and mass incarceration of black and brown bodies is a critical step. Beyond that, we must make a deep excavation into our own personal biases against incarcerated individuals and reflect on how our individual life experiences, combined with our social and cultural landscape, have contributed to the formation of our perceived ‘fears.’ This is the reason I’m interested in creating artwork that can serve as a nuanced tool for people to participate in the difficult work of seeing the world from another person’s perspective, because only then can more individuals begin to accept the idea that having an opportunity to receive restorative healing and empathy is a human right that no one should be denied.”

Gabriel Villa

Gabriel Villa, We Are Witness, 2019. Photo by Tony Favarula. Courtesy of the artist and Illinois Humanities.

“The mural We are Witness (2019), which welcomes visitors into the ‘Envisioning Justice’ exhibition, came from a deeply personal place for me. The story that is being told through the piece is one that speaks to the universality of injustice because mass incarceration, racial profiling, police brutality—these are all symptoms of a national sickness. As someone who’s been in prison as an educator and an art teacher, I am intimately aware of the pervasive poison that the American carceral system enacts on thousands of communities and millions of lives. At the root of this issue is a cycle, the circular madness of capitalism which fuels our prison-industrial complex. I thought back to the symbol of the snake eating itself, the ouroboros. The message of the mural is that this system is a beast so hungry that it must continually consume itself, a process that is unending destruction in slow motion. It is only through a radical re-imagining of justice and equity that we can break this cycle, and it is that truth that gives me hope for us all.”

Kirsten Leenaars

Kirsten Leenars, Present Tense, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Illinois Humanities.

“The video Present Tense (2019) is collectively made with young members of the Circles & Ciphers community in which they perform individual freestyle raps about their own lived experiences. When learning all about the work of Circles & Ciphers and attending their circle meetings, I was struck by the strong sense of community and the joy present within the group. Their joy felt like a powerful act of resistance in the face of racism, police brutality, and personal experiences with the criminal justice system. The nature of these struggles requires an opposite force that enables communities and individuals to persist and resist. Creating a space for joy and expression as I witnessed at Circles & Ciphers seems fundamental for the well-being and healing of our society. While developing ideas for the video work, I imagined a place where people feel seen and heard, and where their joy and sense of belonging are imperative.”

Here is an excerpt from Miguel MV’s freestyle rap:

But hope beyond hope

Just close your eyes to sleep and

You’ll start believing the American dream and

While counting sheep then

You’ll feel like you’re free!

Freedom of speech, that’s just the freedom to bleat

When the wolves come to eat.

The American Pie has been wolfed by Wall Street

They’ll wash it all down with coke and coffee.

“But hold on mon ami, you know that freedom ain’t free,

And if you wanna eat you gotta earn your money.

It wouldn’t work feeding, clothing, and housing the lazy.

Ultimately all that matter is myself and family.”

Exactly what’s maddening. It’s branded as sanity.

The life-blood contained in our veins is vanity.

In vain I’ve sustained some hope for a remedy

What the wise prescribe is a large dose of settling.

They tell me it’s not settling,

That these never-ending cycles are just pedaling.

But what is it you’re peddling?

Who can I trust when profits dictate everything?

Politics is weaponry—

Teach me fear, then sell me peace.

Media for measuring

Medicine is luxury

Schools became a factory,

Producing patriots pledging allegiance to consumption.

Artsy Editorial

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that artist Gabriel Villa has been in prison as an inmate and an art teacher. Villa has only been in the system as an educator and art teacher.