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San Quentin inmates on death row are selling their art through Etsy

Inmates on death row at California’s San Quentin State Prison are selling artworks made during incarceration and they are quite beautiful.

Thanks to a program called ArtReach: Reaching Out with Art and Poetry from Death Row, founded by artist Nicola White in 2016, some of the 40 men on death row are able to exhibit artworks that they have created in a digital gallery online.

From paintings and sketches to jewellery and poetry, the art can be seen and bought by people all over the world on the Art Reach Etsy store.

Artwork by death row inmate
Artwork by William (Bill) Clark

As opposed to the prison’s own hobby program, White’s initiative provides the inmates and their families with a higher percentage of earnings from their own sales, allowing them more funds to spend on crafting or at the prison commissary.

Bill Clark, who drew the above cartoon, said he enjoys working with White because he “wanted to do artwork on political and social commentary. To create a conversation. That’s important to me.” The ArtReach program lets inmates do exactly that.

“There have certainly been some people who’ve just said, ‘Why? Why are you giving these people a platform? Why would you want a piece of art work done by someone who has committed a crime in your house?'” White told VICE. “But a lot of people have looked at it, and seen more than a name and a number, and a person who has committed a crime. They see a heart.”

Self-expression without the expectation of telling personal stories is another highlight of ArtReach as the subject of the art is entirely up to the artist. One of San Quentin’s poets, Steve Champion had this to say: “You have many individuals in here who are artists. I’m a writer, and I have a colleague who I primarily work with and of course when we come up with stuff we share and receive comments.”

“What’s been good for me is just having somebody there to bounce ideas off of… I was reading a lot of politics and economics, and my writing took more of an analytical tone. I didn’t want to write about myself, but things that were happening.” 

San Quentin has previously had some pretty terrifying people like Charles Manson and ‘The Nightstalker’ Richard Ramirez within its walls but the ArtReach initiative shows us that even in the darkest places there is beauty.

You can browse and purchase the artworks here.