“Behind the Wall”, a traveling art exhibition that is made up of creative works by incarcerated people, will be showcased at the Tompkins County Public Library for the entire month of February. 

Organized by Story House Ithaca, curated by Treacy Ziegler, art director of the Prisoner Express Program, from the work submitted to the Prisoner Express program, and showcased at five different libraries within the next six months, this exhibit is a collaborative effort between multiple organizations  around the Tompkins County area. 

The exhibit includes 140 pieces of work — drawings, paintings, letters, stories and poems — from 90 incarcerated people residing in detention facilities in 22 states. It also includes a letter-writing station where visitors can write to the artists. 

Asia Bonacci, communications and engagement librarian at Tompkins County Public Library and coordinator of art exhibits at the library, said one of the reasons the library decided to host this exhibit was because they like to collaborate with other

 organizations in the area. 

“We also just thought that the content of the exhibit was really compelling because it is giving a voice to incarcerated people who aren’t typically allowed this sort of thing,” Bonacci said. 

Gary Fine, director of the Durland Alternatives Library, oversees the Prisoner Express Program, which is one of the outreach programs that is hosted by the library. The Prisoner Express Program allows incarcerated people to take part in initiatives as a way to help alleviate the sense of isolation that comes with being incarcerated. 

“Anybody who’s in the public library will be served to stop by just explore the creativity of people who aren’t in our community, but are of our community,” FIne said. “They’re human beings and they’re living lives and so they're part of the human community. And they often get isolated. It’s [the art exhibit] just a good reminder of the complete humanity of everybody.”

“We started out by being a service that provided incarcerated men with information, education and opportunities for creative self expression in a public forum. … The projects often involve creative writing, critical thinking [and] art.” 

“Libraries are one of the few public places anymore where people can go and there’s no obligation to buy anything, and you’re welcome to be there just to be there,” Fine said. “And so it's a really appropriate place for us to put this artwork where people are welcomed and there’s free things for them. Prisoners are so deprived of books and materials.” 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, for every 100,000 residents, 573 are incarcerated in the United States, making it the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. 

The Prisoner Express Program has volunteers who often write letters to the prisoners, encouraging them to keep up the good work. 

“I thought that would be good for the prisoners, hearing from people,” Fine said. “But what I learned really, after doing it with the students at Cornell and the volunteers, is that people writing the letters were also having profound experiences by sharing correspondence with people [by] feeling supported and feeling like that they were doing good in the world.”

Ziegler said one incarcerated person whose work is showcased in the exhibit told her that the letters he received from students helped to heal his familial relationships. 

“They never came to see him,” Ziegler said. “But [when] he started receiving these letters from students [who had a] positive response to his art, he then took the letters and started sending them back to his parents. And they were then able to see someone else's opinion about him through his artwork. After 15 years and ignoring him, they went to visit him.

Before volunteering at the Prisoner Express Program, Ziegler worked in seven different prisons within four different states. 

“The people that I taught in prisons were handpicked to be part of the arts classes,” Ziegler said. “Often it was white prisoners over black prisoners so there was an element of racism that was involved. So this program [Prisoner Express program] and writing letters to people in prison makes it so I don’t have to answer to any prison.”

Fine said the Prisoner Express program has served about 36,000 people and that they currently have more than 4,000 active participants. To be considered an active participant, the program must have been in contact with the member once over the past six months. 

“We’ve incorporated a lot of letter writing as a part of our program, one to support the prisonersbut also because it educates people really about the humanity of incarcerated men and women,” Fine said. “It starts changing their minds about the system of incarceration, not that people don’t need rehabilitation, but [it makes them question if] the current model [is] doing anything to improve the situation.”

Fine said because the program is constantly receiving works created by prisoners, they decided to collage all the art and display it within their own library, which inspired the “Behind the Wall art exhibit.

“One day, the folks from Story House Ithaca came up to the library to speak to me about the Prisoner Express Project and what it was,” Fine said. “And when they saw that wall that we have here they thought, ‘Oh, we’d love to make an art exhibit of something like this.’ … I provided the materials. They’ve done much more of the logistics of setting up the show.”

Lesley Green, co-founder of Story House Ithaca, said those logistics included applying for a grant through Humanities New York. Jonathan Miller, co-director of Story House Ithaca said they took part in this project to provide incarcerated people a way to communicate to the broader world.

“The idea behind ‘Story’ [in the name Story House Ithaca] is that there are many, many ways of communicating with people and communicating life experiences,” Miller said. “We're really open to doing all sorts of programming that has to do with story. Story is about charting a path through a mess of information to make sense of it. And not just to make sense of it to yourself, but to make sense of it to somebody else.”

Miller said the exhibit isn’t about shaping the artwork in a way to create a narrative but that it is about sharing the outpouring creativity that incarcerated people have. 

“It's incredible to think of how many people, nearly two million people, are in prison and in detention centers around the country, and their minds and their hearts are so active,” Miller said. “And this is just a little bit of a window into that.”

The exhibit will move to five of the largest libraries within the Finger Lakes Library System: Seymour Library in March, the Seneca Falls Library in April, Coburn Free Library in May and the Cortland Free Library in June, according to Story House Ithaca. 


Behind the Wall

At Tompkins County Library

Through Feb. 28

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