“An Avenue for Social Aliveness”: an interview with incarcerated artist Darrell Fair

Darrell Fair is an artist incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center. A virtual gallery of Darrell’s work can be found here

How did you start creating art? Do you remember the first piece of art you ever made?

My first work of art was a stylized self / portrait, designed in 2015, during my first P/NAP [Prison + Neighborhood Arts Program] class, portraiture and installation, taught by Sarah Ross. During this time, I.D.O.C. didn’t allow incarcerated citizens to take pictures, so our loved ones didn’t have any recent pictures of us. So, as a form of resistance we sketched enlarged images of our I.D. pictures onto canvases, which we painted with acrylic paint. We used exaggerated colors to highlight and bring attention along with alternating thick and thin lines to add depth and contrast. We then cut out our figures and attached them to wooden backings. Our class project was entitled The Weight of Rage [full online gallery here]

It was exhibited at multiple venues including The Hyde Park Art Center. Now our families are able to see updated pictures of us.

The editor of Poetry Magazine viewed our exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center and selected my portrait for the cover of Poetry Magazine’ s April 2016 issue which was dedicated to social injustice. That experience was my first lesson in the far-reaching transformative power of art as a tool for social and cultural production, and as Sarah Ross would say, as an avenue for social aliveness.

What art have you contributed to Parole Illinois?

My art contributions for parole illinois.org include my animation contribution used in the opening for the paroleillnois.org site. I also authorized unlimited access to my entire digital catalogue of prints and or original work for any and all fundraisers for paroleillinois.org events.

What is something you want people on the outside to know about your art? About you? About our criminal justice system?

Some of the mediums that i’ve used are acrylic paint on paper and canvas and felt. Water colors, charcoal and colored pencils. Animation and comics; acrylic stamps and print. I’ve also co-designed two murals (“Faces of Hope on 16th in Christiana in North Lawndale, and “It’s Time,” a dedication to Dr. Margaret Burroughs in Washington park). I’ve also done extensive writing and poetry, movement and dance.

I want my artwork to bring awareness to the many injustices within the prison industrial complex: Long-term and disproportionate sentencing; the overcrowded and underfunded facilities, the deteriorating infrastructures; the lack of rehabilitative and restorative programs which violate the 2nd mandate of the Illinois Bill Of Rights, Article 1 Section 11, which places the burden of restoring the offender back to useful citizenship upon the state. I want society to know that we’re not defined by our convictions and that we welcome the opportunity to make amends to victims and their families and meaningful contributions to our own families, communities and society.

I would also want people to know that I’m one of the torture survivors from Area 2. I’ve been incarcerated since 1998, almost 23 years. I’m scheduled to receive my evidentiary ruling August 4th, so it’s possible that I could be released soon and finally exonerated. I need the world to know that during these 23 years of incarceration, that I’ve met countless men and women who are just as deserving of their freedom as I am.

I’ve met litigators, policy writers, artists,musicians, critical thinkers, teachers, orators, conflict resolvers, violence preventers, activists, peace makers, etc……… A multitude of people who would greatly benefit humanity and society. These people, “my people” my community, are part of the future and (the time is now) to bring our future home. “It’s Time” for Illinois to draft a meaningful parole plan and restore offenders back to useful citizenship.


Interview with Samuel Richmond, Incarcerated Artist

Samuel Richmond is an artist incarcerated at Centralia Correctional. A virtual gallery of his work is available here.

How did you first start creating art?

I started to create art competing with my older brother for our mothers’ attention. He drew a portrait of Tupac Shakur from the Word Up! Magazine, my mom gave him so much praise, I wanted some too. But that wasn’t the case, so I quit drawing for years. In ‘98, I started to draw again. It was my mental escape from reality. For the hours at a time I was drawing, nothing else existed. I was happy, that was utopia for me. Drawing is something I may get distracted from, then we always seem to find one another, like a lost love you can never get enough of. (If that makes sense).

I’m not a big speaker, so art was my voice. It is challenging at times, because I may not get an angle right. I am not afraid to ask those who draw better than me, and that opened dialogue. I learn new things, no longer afraid to ask for help.

What do you want people on the outside to know about you?

I grew up in prison, here I am 39, I’ve been incarcerated since the age of 17. Although I will not earn a day off of my sentence, I’ve completed my G.E.D, multiple programs, Art programs included. I’ve earned my associate degree and six credits towards my Bachelor through the ‘Education Justice project.’ I am ambitious, I’d rather listen than be outspoken. If you tell me something, I may write it down, so that I won’t forget. I may mention it in conversation, because the one thing we all want is for people to let us know they paid attention. I love to laugh, I have a serious side, but I am silly. I am grateful for ‘Hello’ and fearful of ‘goodbye,’ yet cherish it all the same.

What do you want people to know about your art?

What I want people on the outside to know about my art is, I am still learning. I want each piece to have a message. I draw for a purpose. I’m not one who wants the spotlight.

And what do you want people to know about the criminal justice system?

What I want people to know about the criminal justice system is that the system as a whole isn’t broken, it works exactly as the lawmakers intended it. Each bill is a thread in the web of entanglement, and the widow can amend as it pleases. $3.8 billion of  federal funding were offered to the states to implement the crime bill, known in the states as the Truth-in-Sentencing scheme, where certain crimes will serve 85% or 100% of the sentence. It was said this bill would curtail crime.

It was no surprise crime continued to increase. Why? The funds used to build a militarized police force and more prison meant no more field houses in impoverished neighborhoods. Places where poor kids considered a safe haven, learning to play ping pong, basketball, baseball, Chess, checkers, and social skills were no more. The parks became a recruitment center for negativity. The men and women who steered us towards positivity were no longer there. Outdated books in school undereducated, minimum wage low enough to keep the working poor too tired to think past the next upcoming due bill. Kids hungry for success, too young for a job, too prideful to beg, joined the local economic way of mutual destruction, selling narcotics. Becoming entangled in this web. If lawmakers would have used that $3.8 billion to build community outreach centers, with job training, conflict resolution, after school programs, community policing where the police know our names before they know the charges brought against us… a system where politicians want to shake our hands before the election cycle, not during it…

The system has declared wars on so many things, covert wars on the poor. If we’re enemies of our own country to have war declared against, then at what point does the system allow us to surrender? You see, George Floyd was the George Floyd of countless unnamed, unfilmed, and unbelieved in a continuous assault against those who are voiceless. As I witnessed the abuse done by my own father, his position was, I can’t beat them (the police who not only broke his body in the ‘80s but his spirit) so I’ll beat my family.

If we ran to those who broke him, for him to quit breaking us, then we would lose twice. So we accepted the lesser of two evils in hopes of survival. When survival is counted as success, instead of success being the way to survive, the system is working against its constituents. Maybe this is the complex of those who contribute to this web believing since the affluent have lawyers, they can disrespect, yell, and disregard their authority. They’ll continue to abuse, murder, and oppress with impunity those who have no representation (the poor and disenfranchised). Where lack of discipline emboldens, to the point of murdering while being filmed, unarmed bodies that war was declared against. Now the flames have come in hopes the wings of this country will become as the phoenix to arise from the ashes as a nation, not just great for some, but a nation great for all. MAKE AMERICA GREAT FOR ALL! This is what I want people to know about the system.

Interview with Sharonda Miller, Incarcerated Artist

When did you first start to draw?

I started drawing for a prison contest. Never cared to win, just to participate and include a meaningful pic/quote. The sunflower was my first drawing. Art is impactful because I’m able to connect to people with it, as well as inspire. What people need to know about my art is, My hands can’t scribe what my heart feels when I draw, so I let my actions tell the story.

What do you want people on the outside to know about you? 

I’m an activist for social justice and prison reform. I will always say, I can’t draw! Because I know it’s not a gift I was blessed with. But I have a vision to help change lives for the better, that’s what people need to know about me.

I can not draw, yet I see the vision of something beautiful in my head, but my hands can’t copy it. I try anyway. These visions always come with quotes. 

What do you want people to know about your relationship with the criminal justice system, or with Parole Illinois?

The criminal justice system excessively convicts and sentences minorities, a lot of wrongful convictions. It’s going to take love and dedication to change the trajectory.

I contribute to PI by joining the auctions, as well as writing proposals for paroling rehabilitated offenders which was published in the Stateville Speaks Newsletter spring/summer 2018. I have sent the proposal to the entire General Assembly. I plan to create a nonprofit to help parolees re enter society more meaningfully.


See some of Sharonda’s art here

Interview with Cowarna Patterson, incarcerated artist

How did you start creating art? Do you remember the first piece of art you ever made?

Thinking back to my childhood up until this point of time in my life I have always been a reclusive type of individual and in my times of solitude I reverted to the arts as a means to busy my mind. I guess all those years of me, myself, and my art was preparation for my lot in life (spending time incarcerated).

No, I don’t recall the first work of art I ever did because I was always writing poetry and doodling in notebooks. However, when I was in high school I created what I believe to be my “first master-piece”. It was a woman attired in African garb with an Erykah Badu inspired head wrap. I used colorful chalks to create my very “first master-piece”. I often wonder where that piece is now.

How has making art impacted your life, in or outside of prison?

Besides the power of God, my art has kept me mentally sound over these 18 years of incarceration. Prison is a very high-stress environment and sometimes it seems as if you are cornered with no possible route of escape. I thank God for the talent that He has bestowed upon me because my art is where I go to escape the “prison world”. Yes, prison is a world of its own.

What is something you want people on the outside to know about your art? About you? About our criminal justice system?

I want the world to know that beauty can be created in the most tumultuous times of our lives. Even though I am surrounded by darkness…my art radiates light and beauty. The times we are living in are filled with confusion and calamity, yet, I believe that light is going to shine forth.

 As far as our criminal justice system goes… Well, I would say that nationwide the “scales of justice” are off balance and they are in dire need of repair. Also, having spent the last 18 years of my life in the custody of Illinois’ Department of Correction, I can personally attest to the fact that our state’s criminal justice system is not fulfilling the Constitution’s guarantee to “restore offenders to useful citizenship” due to the fact that our sentencing guidelines in a sense instructs justices to basically “lock offenders up an throw away the key” (even if the defendant is a first time offender of the law).

It is my hope that I will one day be afforded the opportunity to speak directly to the Honorable Governor J.B. Pritzker concerning my ideology of criminal justice reform.

How have you advocated for this kind of reform reform?

 Besides the “tree woman” painting that I donated to the [Parole Illinois] art auction…a few years back I wrote an essay about the need of Illinois establishing a parole system for everyone. My essay was entitled “Change Must Come: Reforming Illinois’ Reform System”.

Is there anything you want to include about the meaning of any specific pieces? A particular concept you wanted to explore, or a message you wanted to send?

The “tree woman” painting that I donated to the art auction was meant to exude strength. I believe that women in particular are built like trees…. We go through a lot, we endure hardship, hurt, and pain (even imprisonment). The storm often seems to break us…but like well rooted trees, we stand firm.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Cowarna Latrice Patterson is not easily broken. Today, I encourage everyone who is walking through what seems like raging winds to grab hold of God and the creativity that He has placed inside all of His wonderful creations– He upheld me and He will do the same for you. 

— Cowarna Patterson, Logan Correctional Facility, IDOC ID R39845

See a selection of Cowarna’s art here



Every morning, more than a hundred men at Cummins Unit go to work on the Hoe Squad.

Dressed in white, they pile into an open trailer, and a tractor pulls them deep into the prison’s fields. Cummins sits on nearly eighteen thousand acres of land and has a hundred and ten thousand chickens, two thousand cattle, and forty-one horses.

The men on the Hoe Squad pull weeds, dig ditches, and pick cotton, cucumbers, and watermelons. Arkansas is one of only a few states where prison labor is free.

(Other states pay a nominal wage, such as ten cents an hour.)

A dozen field riders—officers on horseback, wearing cowboy hats—patrol the inmates, and, if anyone lags, they threaten to call the truck: a major will drive the inmate to a group of isolation cells known as…

The Hole.



The Supreme Court on Monday ruled 6-3 in a landmark decision that gay and transgender employees are protected by civil rights laws against employer discrimination.

A set of cases that came before the court had asked the justices to decide whether Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of “sex,” applies to gay and transgender people.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion for the six-member majority, said that it does.

“Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender,” Gorsuch wrote. “The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”


DAVE CHAPPELLE: 8 Minutes & 46 Seconds

“Are you guys having a good time? Or is this weird?” Both, Dave. Both.

But we needed this, chairs outlined in red, Social Distanced. We needed this, you hitting the stage.

You never put your hands in your pockets, Dave. Only to reach for a lighter.

You’re a warrior.

8 Minutes & 46 Seconds!



The story of 3 brilliant black women who wrote a love letter to black people and reshaped the narrative.

How they brought people at the margins together to build their power.

Exposing how the police are there to help unjust systems thrive.

Recognizing the power of Social Media but always remembering we have to show up…physically.

Stepping away from the false narrative of respectability politics, into the gloriousness of our wretchedness.

Thanks you Alicia Garza. Thank you Opal Tometi. Thank you Patrisse Cullors.




As many as 13 Chicago police officers broke into Rep. Bobby Rush’s Chicago campaign offices to lounge on chairs, drink coffee and make popcorn while looters vandalized nearby businesses in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Rush and Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Thursday.

The two Illinois Democrats stood together at a news conference to call out the actions, which took place at the end of May. While they spoke, images of officers “in repose,” as Rush said, were flashed on a screen.

“Looting was going on, buildings were being burned, officers were on the front lines truly taking a beating with bottles and pipes, and these guys were lounging — in a congressman’s office,” Lightfoot said. “The utter contempt and disrespect is hard to imagine.”

The mayor added that “it’s almost inconceivable with what was going on … where looting continued into Monday morning, having started Saturday night.”

“Look at this guy, sleeping on a congressman’s couch,” Lightfoot said, pointing to an image of an officer.

Rush added: “They even had the unmitigated gall to go and make coffee for themselves and to pop popcorn — my popcorn — in my microwave while looters were tearing apart businesses within their sight and within their reach.”

“When you swear an oath to serve and protect, you are a Chicago police officer — not a police officer only for certain neighborhoods and only for certain times,” said the mayor, whose voice shook with emotion and who at one point wiped away tears.



As the protests over police brutality and the killing of George Floyd ramped up in the past week, the administration of Donald Trump increasingly fortified the area around the White House.

Entrances to Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street NW, the Ellipse, and Lafayette Square are barricaded by about 1.7 miles of mesh metal fences and guarded by police.

Meanwhile, Mayor Muriel Bowser has expressed concern that some of the measures may be permanent.

The barriers have been a jarring sight for many Washingtonians, long used to free access to spaces that serve as a symbol of democracy and where First Amendment protests have played out for over a century. Throughout the week, protesters could often be heard pressed up against the fence, chanting…

“This Is What Democracy Looks Like.”