Project PAINT Teaches Prisoners How To Express Themselves Freely Behind Bars

Peter Merts
Teachers from Project PAINT (Founder, Laura Pecenco, in center)

Last May, an art show opened in San Diego that drew a small, art-loving crowd to look at the works on display. In many ways, it was just like any other gallery opening — the artists were on hand to answer questions, the public interacted with them, and those with the means/interest bought pieces. But in this case, artists and patrons sharing a pop-up gallery space was remarkable — because every one of the artists was an inmate at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. In fact, the show took place behind its walls.

“It was such a cool opportunity for the inmates to get to really see that people were excited by their work, to answer people’s questions, and just to see the looks on people’s faces,” Project PAINT founder Laura Pecenco, 33, says.“It really was just priceless.”

Project PAINT — an organization created to bring art opportunities to prisoners— had done shows before. But those were in galleries and museums. This was the first show of its kind for them, one that integrated the public and the incarcerated artists in one space. And in the starkness of the prison environment, where divisions amongst people — the free and the incarcerated; the guards and the inmates; one ethnicity vs another — feel set in stone, it was a breath of fresh air to have a reason for everyone to celebrate, together.

Peter Merts

We all know America has a problem with prisons. They’re growing, and at a rapid pace. According to the NAACP, in 1980 there were about 500 thousand people incarcerated in the U.S. By 2015, that number was 2.2 million. And by country, the United States holds about 5% of the world’s population, but 21% of its prisoners. In part, this is because once in prison, inmates aren’t typically leaving for good once they’ve served their sentences. The overall recidivism rate in the U.S. is around 70% within five years of release.

Research shows that this doesn’t need to be the case. One program in New York has worked to expand educational opportunities in the prisons by offering a curriculum that includes core subjects like math and science but also things like art and philosophy. In the existing university program it’s based on, among the inmates that participated, only four-percent reoffended, and that number went down to two-percent when they completed a degree — that’s in comparison to the overall recidivism rate in the New York State prison system which sits at 40 percent.

Education seems to be the key to lowering recidivism rates. A study by the Rand Corporation, looked at the results of 50 studies over the last 30 years to understand the impact of giving prisoners educational opportunities. They found that education reduced recidivism by about 13 percent on average. And even with factoring in the added costs of providing those opportunities, not having those people go back to prison saves tax payers money. For every $1 put into prison education, it saves an average of $4-$5 in the long term overall.

Peter Merts

Laura Pecenco was 18 when she first started working with prisoners.

“All of my preconceptions were immediately thrown out the window,” she says. “They (the inmates) would bring in these really, just sort of plain notebooks and they would be like, “Oh, these are my doodles.” They were these beautiful pieces of art. I kept saying, “‘This is not a doodle. This is really, really beautiful work.’ That was something that kind of stuck with me.”