Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and Amnesty International's 1st Annual Participatory Memorial Action, 2014. Photo: Sarah Ross

In the last decade, a growing number of artists, organizations, and activists in the Chicago area have created artwork and developed responses to what is now termed a “prison nation.” The US locks up more people than any other nation in the world and exhausts more resources on confinement and punishment each year. One in 99 adults in the US is incarcerated; the financial and social costs to tax payers and communities is staggering. Conservatives, liberals, and members of the left have all called for policy changes, yet when violence and poverty rage in Chicago neighborhoods, the common response is a call to lock more people away for longer prison terms.

Creative culture has been at the forefront of changing the public perception about the realities of social segregation, poverty, violence, and incarceration. Chicago-area artists have staged performances and exhibitions, created organizations, and developed long-term projects to alter entrenched thinking and unsettle business-as-usual.

What kinds of projects are happening that create a culture of change? Can art decarcerate? Change the law? Liberate communities from violence? Envision and enact new futures?

Join us for a monthly forum to learn about creative projects happening in the city that confront, agitate, and dismantle the prison nation.

Each month, several artists and groups will give short presentations on current work and share their experiences, challenges, and successes. The presentations are open to the public and all are welcome to an “open mic” to present their own projects and events at the end of the evening. Please join us in this lively discussion as we imagine and activate collective solutions addressing the state of our prison nation.

Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation is organized by Sarah Ross and Kevin Kaempf with support by SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries and the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.


Upcoming Events

Thursday, December 11

7:00–9:00 p.m.
Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 S. Halsted St.

Rachael Hudak is the National Coordinator of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project and Project Manager for anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean. Hudak is a poet and storyteller whose work takes up questions of violence and incarceration. She has previously worked with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance and the Prison Creative Art Project.

Tirtza Even is a practicing video artist and documentary filmmaker for more than 15 years. Her recent work includes Natural Life, an experimental documentary made in conjunction with the legal efforts of the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle. The project challenges inequities in the juvenile justice system by depicting, through documentation and reenactment, the stories of five individuals who were incarcerated for life without parole (natural life) for crimes they committed as youth.

Eddie Bocanegra is the Co-Executive Director of Youth Safety and Violence Prevention at the YMCA of Metro Chicago. His work is chronicled in the documentary The Interrupters. In 2011 he received the Heroes Award from Governor Quinn, and had the honor to speak at the United Nations. In addition, Northwestern, Yale, University of Southern California, and dozens of universities have invited Bocanegra to present on panels and give class lectures on violence prevention and social justice around ex-offenders. He is the recipient of the 2013 Marciniak Bright Star Award from the Bright Promises Foundation. Bocanegra is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and is a Laurence Lynn Fellow.


Past Events

Thursday, September 25

7:00–9:00 p.m.
Sullivan Galleries
33 S. State St., 7th floor

Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) is a group of attorneys, artists, educators, and social justice activists, who have organized exhibitions, workshops, readings, screenings, and other events in an effort to honor and to seek justice for the survivors of Chicago police torture, their family members, and the African American communities affected by the torture. Currently CTJM is working on a campaign seeking reparations for the survivors of Chicago Police torture.

Temporary Services has been creating exhibitions, events, projects, and publications since 1998. The group has produced collaborative and multi-year projects addressing incarceration. These include: Angelo, Drawings (2000), an exhibition and booklet; Prisoners’ Inventions (2003), featuring two publications and exhibition featuring recreated inventions made by prisoners, replica of a prison cell, and resource library; and Supermax Subscriptions (2008), a project utilizing frequent flyer miles to provide magazine subscriptions to Supermax prisoners.

Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP) is a coalition of artists, writers, and scholars who organize arts and humanities classes to people at Stateville prison. Each year, scholarly and creative work is developed in the prison that is then exhibited in neighborhood galleries. Over the course of an academic semester, artists and scholars on the inside and outside address key questions around ideas of mutual learning, questions of freedom, and power and the potential of creative culture.

Billy McGuinness became interested in the Cook County Jail in the fall of 2012, when he visited there as a graduate student of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His curiosity about the jail led him to the “Inmate Locator” page of the sheriff’s website, where, with any letter of the alphabet entered into the last name search field, visitors to the site could access detailed information about all current detainees, including their booking photos. Believing the images, and the conditions of their creation and display, to be emblematic of a system that demands further investigation, McGuinness felt compelled to share them; in the fall of 2013 he began contacting inmates by mail and asking to use their images. He simultaneously began contacting jail personnel and suggesting that the website be changed. Both projects came to a conclusion in the spring of 2014, when the “Inmate Locator” was altered to make detainee information harder to access.


Thursday, October 9

7:00–9:00 p.m.
Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 S. Halsted St.

Project NIA works to end youth incarceration by supporting community-based alternatives to the criminal legal system. Founded in 2009 NIA combines education and advocacy with direct work supporting community accountability and helping youth stay out of the criminal legal system. They host exhibitions and organize events to raise critical questions about policing, prisons, violence, and transformation.

Storycatchers Theatre is a youth development arts organization that prepares young people to make positive life choices through the process of writing, producing, and performing original musical theatre inspired by personal stories. Staffed by professional teaching artists, Storycatchers Theatre conducts ongoing multi-week programs with groups of youth who live in under-resourced neighborhoods or who are detained or incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. Workshops culminate in performances of a musical play built on a unified theme and story line.

Lucky Pierre is a collaborative group working in writing, performance, and visual forms. Lucky Pierre creates structures for engagement with various publics. In these forms, the group explores complex issues and ideas (political, aesthetic, social) in ways that accommodate a wide range of experience, styles, and approaches. Recent participatory projects include Final Meals and Actions for Chicago Torture Justice.


Thursday, November 13

7:00–9:00 p.m.
Sullivan Galleries
33 S. State St., 7th floor

96 Acres is a series of community-engaged, site-responsive art projects that address the impact of the Cook County Jail on Chicago’s West Side. They use multidisciplinary practices to explore the social and political implications of incarceration on communities of color. Through creative processes and coalition building, 96 Acres aims to generate alternative narratives reflecting on power and responsibility by presenting insightful and informed collective responses for the transformation of a space that occupies 96 acres, but has a much larger reaching outcome. 96 Acres is a project organized by Maria Gaspar.

Dorothy Burge is the Internship Coordinator for Associated Colleges of the Midwest. She teaches seminars on systematic racism, criminal justice, and social problems. As an artist and quilter, she has created a large-scale quilting project representing juveniles serving life without parole. Burge works with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and has worked with public housing residents in Bronzeville.

Mary Patten is a visual artist, video-maker, writer, educator, occasional curator, and a long-time community and political activist. In her studio work, collaborative projects, writing, and teaching, she addresses collisions and alignments between “politics” and art making. Public, collaborative projects have included murals, billboards, and large-scale, interdisciplinary curatorial efforts. She continues to be drawn to collective forms of cultural production to reclaim language, feeling, and political passions from fundamentalist thinking, and to reclaim a utopia of the everyday.

Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy Program leads formal creative writing and poetry workshops inside the jail school, engaging students in the study of contemporary poetry and literature that is relevant to their life experience. Through increased literacy, written self-expression, exposure to and study of the performing, visual, and literary arts, they work with students to find meaningful pathways to self-expression and to further education.