Art behind bars has existed for as long as prisons have. It has taken the shape of drawings or poems carved out in cell walls, tattoos incised in living skin, and songs composed and performed in chain gangs. Art in prison functions as a creative outlet for detainees whose identities have become consumed by their criminality and captivity. More than a way to kill time when doing time, art gives meaning to the passage of time and reconciles physical enclosure with emotional freedom.
The initiative of Art Behind Bars, Inc. was started in Key West, Florida (USA) in 1994 by a local artist and has since branched out across America and the world. With profound effect, prisoners are encouraged to focus emotional energy into producing artwork, which is then exhibited and sold with proceeds going to charitable organisations. Donations of art made to other NPOs also raise awareness of the talent held behind bars and how the creative process acts as a channel for emotions and memories often hidden under years or decades of suppression.
The success of this initiative has spawned many others like it across the world. In Europe, organisations such as the EU-sponsored Prison Arts Network (PAN) are working to introduce art education into European prison systems to combat recidivism, which hovers dangerously around 50 percent or more, and to foster creative vocational training to promote successful social reintegration.