An on-line art show sponsored by New York's Fortune Society generated national attention this week because one of the participants in the show is serial killer Alfred J. Gaynor.
The Fortune Society and advocates believe that art and other prison programs are therapeutic and rehabilitative. The auction is a way for artists to show and sell their art work, generating small income in order to buy art supplies.
"Learning how to paint behind bars saved my life" said artist Anthony Papa, who served 12 years of a 15 to life sentence under the New York Rockefeller Drug Laws. Papa was granted clemency by Governor Pataki after a self portrait he painted in prison showed at the Whitney Museum and generated national media attention.
"I am afraid that Massachusetts will make the same mistake that New York did after similar controversy in 2002," Papa added.
On March 29, 2002 New York State Corrections Commissioner Glen Goord ended 35 years of artistic expression in the New York State prison system by banning the sale of art by prisoners. Before the ban, prisoners in New York were allowed to exhibit their art once a year in the legislative office building in Albany. The art was sold, and fifty percent of the profits were donated to the Crime Victims Board.
In the 2002 show, however, a painting created by a serial killer was displayed. The press found out about it, and the political process went into overkill trying to look tough on crime. The public reasoning behind Goord's decision was that he felt it was not worth the anguish that crime victims feel to allowing imprisoned artists to sell their art.
"For many men and women in prison, art is a life sustaining source. For most of them, earning money selling their art enables them to buy food and toiletries and help support their families in the outside world," said Papa, who is the author or 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and currently works with the Drug Policy Alliance.
Now, Massachusetts appears to be following New York's lead. In response to sensationalistic media, on Tuesday, state representatives Cheryl Rivera of Springfield and Peter Koutoujian of Middlesex filed bills that would prohibit inmate artists receive any profits from their art.
"Creating and selling art instills a sense of self-esteem which is a very important element in reentering society. Instead of attacking programs like this we should be expanding them," Papa said.