Activities in and out of the Studio

I Go to Prison
(but only for a day, and only as a visitor)


On Saturday, November 8, 2003 I was invited by collage artist Will Ursprung to visit the maximum security prison at Graterford, Pennsylvania where Will, who is also a psychologist, is in charge of the Art Therapy program.

It was an exciting and challenging day. I met a number of talented inmate artists who generously shared with me what art means to them in an environment which places so many limits on individual freedom. I shared with them my experiences as an artist. Together we explored what experiences are different in prison and "on the street" and what experiences are the same in both environments.

I was treated with great courtesy by everyone I met, guards, staff, and inmates, alike.
At no time did I feel in danger, even though I was interacting with a variety of men, some of whom society has judged to be so dangerous that they have been sentenced to life without parole.

Among other things, my day at Graterford reminded me that our government currently seeks to solve social problems by building more prisons (or overcrowding the ones we already have) rather than by attempting to remedy the root causes of those problems*. The disproportionate number of inmates who were men of color or hispanic origin served to remind me of the failure of our legal system to dispense justice impartially. Most of the inmates, however, looked at things much more personally, bravely accepting their responsibility for the actions which led to their incarceration and rarely blaming others for the circumstances in which they find themselves.

The artists I met were of various levels of expertise. Some were new to art, finding in it an avenue of emotional escape from the surroundings of their incarceration. Others had done art "on the outside" before having been sent to prison. All made great efforts to be authentic in their art-making and much of their work was wonderful.

I am grateful to Will, a signature member of the National Collage Society, for having invited me to meet the artists in his program. Many of their works, poems, and stories are well worth being added to this webpage but I am not yet clear about whether or not I can use their names and/or their works here. I know that no pictures could be taken inside the prison and that is why you see Will and I, in the photo above, outside the walls. If I get the OK from the authorities I will add some inmate works to this page. In the meantime, let me share with you just one of the many things which were affirmed for me during my visit to Graterford... having committed a socially unacceptable act does not mean that a person is inhuman, insensitive, or universally disrespectful of his or her fellow human beings.

- - Jonathan Talbot, November 9, 2003

* I have recently heard that the number of people in US jails on drug charges alone is more than the number of people incarcerated on all charges in the European Union even though the European Union's population exceeds ours by 100 million. - JT December 11, 2003

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This page is located at and was last updated November, 2003