An Interview with Sarah Ross of Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project 
with Heath Schultz

Sarah Ross & Heath Schultz  |  Sarah Ross is an artist and teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.  |  Heath Schultz is a writer and researcher.

HS: I thought it would be a good place to start if you could talk a little about your history of working with incarcerated people? Why do you think this work is politically important?

SR: Around 2005 when I moved to Urbana, Illinois I was looking for a job with my newly minted MFA. I saw a posting with a community college to teach art history in a prison; I figured — I can do that! But I was pretty naive…

Going into a prison as a free person reiterates the stark and brutal inequalities in American society. It made me uncomfortable to be in my own skin there, to have that much privilege, to witness this catastrophe of confinement and only have the tool of art history to wield. Within six months I thought I couldn’t do it. I stuck it out and over the next few years I self-educated by reading everything I could and trying to connect with others in this movement. Between that and having really important conversations in class about race, representation, the power of images and the beauty of images, etc. is what kept me coming back.

Two or three semesters later, Brett Bloom (of Temporary Services) and I started a reading and screening group in Urbana to collectively understand more of the U.S. carceral history. We met twice a month and the group was called Prison Impact. It was the saddest, most depressing group because not many people participated, but significantly, the subject matter is angering and devastating. About a year later we started holding the group at the prison with incarcerated people.

I didn’t seek out prisons to start teaching… instead, I really dumbly of fell into it. Which is to say a lot about my own social position and how something like a prison figures into my daily way of living. I think prison is a kind of ground zero for the most massive inequalities in our society and therefore it must be engaged and questioned. Precisely because prisons are often isolated it is possible for many of us to not consider conditions of confinement. This is not happenstance, it is completely by design. In this way I think it’s critical to think about how spatial arrangements facilitate a kind of blindness or at the very least a disconnectedness.

HS: Could first talk a little about some of the other programs you’ve done with incarcerated people leading up to PNAP.

SR: Once I started teaching at the prison in central Illinois I realized I needed books for the students to write papers but there were none! So I connected with an amazing local books to prisoners organization and the activists on the Tamms Year Ten Campaign — an organization founded to shut down Tamms Supermax prison. Now I work with a group called Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) — a group of lawyers, artists, scholars, survivors of torture and community activists. CTJM formed with the idea of making memorials around the city for survivors of police torture under the direction of Jon Burge — an infamous Chicago police officer who tortured people into confessions and was sentenced to prison for four years for perjury (he could not be tried for torture because the statute of limitations expired). In light of this, CTJM it was felt important to do something more about justice and remembering.

HS: Can you talk a little about how you see PNAP fitting into prison activist and arts efforts in Chicago?

SR: PNAP is an arts and education project with the goal of facilitating rigorous classes and making compelling work with incarcerated people.If education and art can be a tool for articulating this moment in history and imaging new futures, then I believe this project works alongside the many efforts to remake what justice can look like.

As far as fitting into a radical art scene in Chicago — this town has amazing artists and arts organizations who have expansive views of art. I think by combining the talents of our artist-instructors and incarcerated artists’ we are able to produce something fresh, critical, and engaging. People have told me that what they see from PNAP is not what they expected. Admittedly I relish this and I have to believe that those moments have social/political and aesthetic potential!

HS: What are your strategies for amplifying the incarcerated artists’ voices? What do you see as the most valuable thing we can learn from engaging with their work?

SR: One way I have thought about amplifying the work of incarcerated artists’ voices is to blend it in with everyone elses. One way incarceration is so corrosive is that is effectively disappears people. I’ve often wondered if we regularly saw media, writing, and art from incarcerated people if that might shift our perspective regarding who is incarcerated and why. Having art exhibitions every year is one strategy to insist on a presence in the community.

If folks are willing to really listen, there are many things we can learn from engaging this work. On the one hand there is obvious things, such as learning about state control, consequences of violence, poverty, and racism. But we can also learn about the challenges of staying mentally alive, having community, developing resistance to the boredom and monotony of incarceration. These two things go hand in hand, of course. For me I’ve learned a lot about the small ways control and regulation can work to reproduce power and shape subjectivity. I’ve also learned the way people develop autonomy against the odds.  

HS: Could you speak a little about how you see PNAP as part of a larger anti-racist organizing project?

SR: PNAP is a kind of boundary-crossing project that suggests one way to work against racism is to work against the spatial segregation it produces. Both faculty and students often have our/their assumptions challenged. Faculty who are activists, educators, and politically astute people, teach inside and say “wow, I didn’t know I’d have such rigorous conversations with students”… and then we check ourselves and say “why not?”. We also have students that have said “I didn’t think that you people (college faculty, artists, or whoever) would be interested in coming here to work with us”. And there are assumptions about what, say, a white woman such as myself gets out of doing this. In fact I always tell people to think about why they want to do this work because students inside will definitely ask “why are you here?” So there is learning and challenging on both ends.

You write in an essay you’ve co-written with Erica Meiners “…any program in prison, even those with good intentions, can serve to create a ‘surface’ of rehabilitation or correction, while obfuscating the functions and daily administration of control.” Can you speak a little about how PNAP struggle against this recuperation by the state?

SR: This is difficult for a few reasons. First, the state has total control in the prison and we operate at their permission. They will use our efforts to say that they rehabilitate, correct, reform, and so on. They will also kick  us out any time they want. They have, and will, punish us for things that they find undermine their sense of security, such as taking an artwork out of the prison that they found questionable (a skull sculpture). To work against this we make friends with people or groups that can advocate for us. This is an important function because we want a chorus of voices on the outside to advocate for and know what is happening to people in prison — family members should not be the only ones carrying that weight. But even with this, the compromises to real creative and scholarly engagement in the prison might one day overcome us. As a group we have discussed this and are aware of these limitations. At a certain point if we can’t teach rigorous courses, if we cannot have outside exhibitions or other engagements, then we’d have to ask ourselves what the project is doing then and evaluate its worth.

But the state is not monolithic thing. There are internal struggles in any prison system and within state politics. There are, indeed, people who work for the prison who want to see projects like ours. There are people in state politics who also have family members in prison or have been to prison themselves (we are talking about Illinois here!) and they too want to see changes in the system. We have to work in these spaces and try to shape them to create the world we want to live in that includes a just, creative and radical education.