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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Arts and Crafts -- December 8, 2011

On Monday, the prison was taken off lockdown status. After the brief escape of a Stateville inmate on Friday, the regular monotonous routine at this maximum-security penitentiary resumed. Men went back to work picking up trash, mopping floors, washing laundry, cutting hair, cooking food and scooping the slop onto trays. Those that did not have details were mostly confined to their cells, except for chow lines and an occasional yard, prison program, or religious service. Some prisoners made use of their abundant time making various arts and crafts and attempting to peddle their goods to make a buck. Others simply occupied their time creatively just for their own enjoyment. People outside these prison walls may be surprised by all the various things inmates make in their cells.

Earlier this week, I watched a program on Chicago's Public Broadcasting Station (PBS). The station often has travel programs such as "Rick Steve's Europe." On occasion, I will watch these to get away from Stateville. It is as close as I will ever come to a vacation. This week, a program about Christmas crafts made in the small medieval border towns of Germany and Switzerland was on. It was nice to see the warm and folksy ambiance of these towns. They have a tremendous amount of history, and their quaint cities were lavishly ornamented in Christmas decor. I do not care much for the consumerism of the holiday, but there were numerous shops offering various arts, crafts, and foods, especially chocolates. Although their craftsmanship was superior to what is offered in the penitentiary, inmates here at Stateville make a number of handcrafted goods that are reflective of their culture and talents.

My cellmate has thankfully continued to occupy himself making jewelry boxes. He has a variety of them made out of intricately folded and woven paper and cookie plastic wrappings on the cell counter top. Apparently, he is advertising them to passersby and inmates stuck in the holding cage across from our cell. The best of his jewelry boxes is at the far end, facing the bars for everyone to see. It is a 6" x 4" shallow box made with white and pink paper. He has added a paper pink rose to the front and an etched mirror on the front and back of the lid.

The cell I live in is in a high traffic area of the cell house, and many people have asked Ely about his boxes. It is as if they are window shopping, and although I despise the extra attention, my cellmate loves it. He now has yet another subject of conversation, and possibly a sale to be had. Men will ask to see his boxes, whereupon he will let them scrutinize his handiwork. Sometimes, they will offer a trade, but more often than not, they are just browsing.

Depending on the size of the box and the work that went into it, Ely will expect a certain payment. Usually, he will want $10 for one, and if it can be paid in coffee or sweets, that is better. The price of mirrors at Stateville has gone up to $2, and it is an additional $2 for Ely to have them engraved. My cellmate does not have a tattoo gun, nor does he know how to make designs with it. Hence, he charges extra to have another prisoner make these enhancements.

Tattoos are probably still the most lucrative and in demand artwork in the penitentiary. Those men who are well skilled as tattoo artists can make an excellent hustle. Recently I spoke to the man who was my neighbor in the Roundhouse and goes by the name Tattoo. His real name is Michael Knuth, and people can see his mugshot on the IDOC website under "inmate search." Michael's entire body and face are covered in tattoos. I asked him if he is making a good deal of money now that he is in general population. Although he was a tattoo artist before his arrest, he is not doing any tattoo work in prison. He tells me it is not worth the penalty of going to Segregation. Instead, he draws tattoo patterns for others to use.

While talking to Tattoo, he told me of a man in his cell house who is making miniature models of Harley Davidson motorcycles out of paper. I was told that the finished product is painted and looks almost like the real thing. The prisoner making them charges people $50. Although Tattoo tells me they are well worth the money, I tend to believe he does not have too many sales. Fifty dollars is a lot of money in prison, and there are not many here who are biker enthusiasts. He would do better selling his paper motorcycle models at Menard Correctional.

Most prisoners do not have a prime cell location to advertise their goods, like mine unfortunately has. Instead, they will have to rely on word in the cell house being passed around, or will have inmate workers go down galleries peddling their arts and crafts. Throughout the week, cell house workers have brought various handmade products to my cell. I have ignored them, but my cellmate will readily engage them, even though he has no commissary to trade. One of the most popular goods being sold by workers currently is Christmas cards. Using heavy paper or cardboard that can be used as cardstock, men will write messages and draw pictures on the holiday cards. They will typically use markers, colored pencils, or pens to decorate them.

This week, I wrote a number of my relatives letters, although I did not send any of them Christmas cards. I appreciate the culture and traditions of the season, so I add a little Yule decor to my letters such as a few snow flakes, some holly, or other ornamentation. A couple of letters I simply addressed the envelopes in green or red Gothic script. Considering that Internal Affairs is delaying and even destroying my outgoing mail, they will probably not reach their destinations before the 25th, if ever.

One of the men peddling his arts and crafts on the gallery was selling cloth bracelets. He had sewn these bracelets with string or yarn. The prisoner had a collection of various designs and colors for sale. My cellmate told him he had no money and was "po" (poor). The man said he will give him three for a jewelry box, and then offered four when my cellmate said no. Even four were not an attractive deal for Ely. Ely had already purchased a designer cloth bracelet from another man. It was made of white and violet string, and at one part of the band it had his name embroidered on one side and the name of the woman he was sending it to on the other. My cellmate only bought the bracelet thinking the woman would be so moved that she would send him money for his birthday or for Christmas. However, no money or even a thank you letter was forthcoming from her. Although initially my cellmate bragged that his investment would be returned at least ten fold, I believe he is now disappointed he wasted his money on an old fat woman.

At the chow hall this week, an old white man who walks with a crutch sat at the table with me. Upon the mentioning of the cloth bracelets being sold on the gallery, he pulled up the sleeves of his jacket and showed others his plastic bracelets. He had four shiny turquoise blue bracelets on his arms. They were intricately designed and stretched so he was able to take one off his wrist by bending it open. Those at the table could tell he was proud to display his work. However, although I am certain the man put considerable effort into making them, no one was interested in buying one.

Also of discussion at the chow table was former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. This Wednesday, he was finally sentenced to 14 years in prison for numerous counts of corruption, including attempting to sell the vacated senate seat of Barack Obama. Prisoners commented on how the ex-governor would remain out of prison until well after Christmas and will go to a nice minimum-security federal penitentiary. The men were envious of what was seen as preferential treatment. Most men who are at Stateville are not given a bond, and those that were are immediately taken into custody upon their conviction. Men with over ten years are also sent to a medium-security penitentiary, not a minimum. Even medium security prisons are an enormous improvement compared to Stateville. There was talk about how Blagojevich will have a radically better life than any of us. Personally, however, I took notice how there was a distinction between convicted murderers and a man who abused his political office.

Last week, when old man Bruce died of cancer on my birthday, my cellmate told me that he used to make colored handkerchiefs and T-shirts. I do not recall prisoners making designer shirts, although I do remember how popular the handkerchiefs were. Many prisoners had these decorated with various designs years ago. Many black prisoners had their gang colors or symbols drawn on the cloth in dye, markers, or pen. Mexicans also used handkerchiefs to display their gang membership, but there were many green, red, and white flags with Aztec Indian motifs. Popular amongst Caucasian men were swastikas, rebel flags, or motorcycle insignias. Men also bought the artwork on handkerchiefs to send out to family or friends. Over the years I have been incarcerated, however, handkerchiefs have become obsolete and I rarely see one anymore.

Other than very basic education, there are no more school classes in maximum-security prisons in Illinois. However, there are a few programs inmates can attend led by volunteers. For example, there is a Long Term Offender and House of Healing Program, both of which are to help prisoners make the best of their time. There is also a Creative Writing and Art class. I have never attended any of these because I do not need assistance doing my time. I also know the latter two classes are not taught by professionals, and they do not have any skill. They mostly just play a supportive role and encourage convicts to write poetry or to draw and paint. I asked someone recently who is in the Creative Art class if he figured out how to finger paint yet, and he told me I underestimated his talent. I apologized and said that I did not know he had excelled to be a master of Jackson Pollock already. I do not think he knew who Pollock was, however, and believe my attempt at humor was unsuccessful.

Some men at Stateville, however, can really draw and paint well. I have seen a few almost professional looking paintings on canvas panels be sent out of the prison recently. Because they cannot go out with the regular mail, they are often given to counselors who bring them to the personal property office to be packaged and mailed out or picked up on a visit. Prisoners cannot have paintings on their walls.

Some prisoners who can paint or draw well sell their artwork online. I have heard the woman who presides over the Creative Art class will assist in having prisoners' art auctioned on websites. Some men will simply do paintings or drawings for other inmates for a fee. I have heard of paintings selling for $50 and more. A man I know, who goes by the name Spider, sells his oil paintings for sometimes $100. He once offered to make a painting for me of anything I wanted for free. I considered taking him up on this, however, I knew that my family or girlfriend at the time would not appreciate the work unless it was done by myself.

A couple of months ago, I read a book on John Wayne Gacy. In the middle of the book are a number of pictures, including a terrible portrait he made of his defense lawyer who later became my presiding judge. This made me recall in 1994 when the serial killer was executed at Stateville, many people burned his alleged artwork, thinking it would become valuable after his death. These people however, did not realize that Gacy could not paint or draw at all. His greatest efforts were not much better than a child's. All of those clown paintings were done by someone else, and he just signed them.

I have not bothered spending much of my time on arts and crafts while in the penitentiary. However, I remember when I first came to prison that I noticed how many prisoners lived out of cardboard boxes stacked along the walls of their cells or underneath their bunks. I began to make cabinets out of cardboard that looked like, and were as strong as, real wood cabinets. I supposed the enterprise came easily to me because I had spent time working at a cabinet manufacturer. While there, I worked every stage of the business from cutting the wood into proper lengths, and loading the final products on a truck for shipment.

After I made dressers, a desk, a sound system cabinet, a couple of clothing chests, and numerous shelving units for my cellmate and I, other inmates wanted me to make them furniture as well. For a short time, I mass-produced cabinets for inmates, but the time I spent on making them was not worth the commissary I earned. Just like when I worked for the cabinet business, I quickly learned my labor was not worth my salary. I still made furniture for the needs of my cellmate and I, or for the very few people I associated with, but that was it. Eventually the cabinet business was forbidden, when in the late 1990's, the IDOC supplied inmates with two plastic boxes to put all their property in. Even when I made two television shelves, I was brought into the Sergeant's office to be talked to.

I can draw very well, however, I have rarely done so in prison. I need solitude and quiet to focus on any art work. This is not commonly found in prison. At certain times when I have had my own cell, I have used colored pencils to draw. I have mostly drawn for my own enjoyment and not for any payment. The last picture I created was done years ago, and for my then-girlfriend. I drew a portrait of us together in black and white, except for the red in the charm around her neck and the blue in my eyes. She told me I made her look prettier than she was, but she was mistaken.

There are numerous arts and crafts being made at Stateville. This holiday season, I have seen an assortment being peddled: jewelry boxes, suckers made out of melted hard candy, cloth bracelets and necklaces, fake roses made out of toilet paper, Christmas cards and tattoos. There seems to be a lot of goods for sale in the penitentiary, although I do not know how much demand there is for them. Just like outside these prison walls, retailers pushed heavily for sales and were momentarily pleased by a record turnout. However, these bargain shoppers I believe were only a reflection of how many people have their finances strapped thin. The jubilation that began this holiday season will probably peter out, and this is just as well. Even Charlie Brown knows there is more to Christmas than exuberant consumerism.


  1. You should post some of your artwork. I'd love to see some!!

  2. FROM ONE OF THE EDITORS: Paul has no access to a camera. He has no pictures of anything, even of himself.

  3. I meant drawings mailed with his blog entries, possibly being posted online. It was just a thought :-)

  4. could maybe publish his artwork?

  5. Paul: you should conduct a class at Stateville....

    1. "How to be a curmudgeon"

      Just kidding Paul!

  6. Blog readers and followers! Please read comments under post #253 "the invasion of the Ukraine" and help Paul

  7. "For example, there is a Long Term Offender and House of Healing Program, both of which are to help prisoners make the best of their time."

    What do they teach in these two programs?

  8. That dude Tattoo; what kind of job did he think he'd ever get with a face full of ink?! Maybe he knew he would end up in a prison?

  9. Paul, your Jackson Pollock joke was great.

  10. I was curious if you ever considered changing the layout of your blog?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.

    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two images.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

  11. Hello! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche.
    Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a extraordinary job!


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