Inmates Paint and Draw the Rich People They Think Should Be Behind Bars
The guys behind the statue of Edward Snowden that briefly resided in a Brooklyn Park have a new politically-charged art project.
Ben van Beurden oversees a hugely profitable energy company that some critics allege has been at least loosely implicated in human rights and environmental abuses ranging from execution to the destruction of precious natural resources. But the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell has never been charged with a crime and remains a free man.
P. Mitchell Hand, who recently painted a portrait of Beurden from the confines of a state prison in Arizona, is not.
Hand is serving 33 years for burglary and selling stolen goods, among other offenses. He's just one of 29 prisoners who contributed to CAPTURED, an art project unveiled this week by New Yorkers Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider. The duo asked inmates who have committed serious offenses ranging from theft to murder to draw portraits of the executives and CEOs of some of the world's wealthiest and most powerful companies. The corporations are often accused—whether by human rights groups or civilians—of using high-powered lawyers to avoid accountability to the public for arguably criminal conduct. (A study last year found white-collar crime prosecutions in America at a 20-year low.)
CAPTURED is the end-result of a year-plus undertaking that included extensive research and communication with the families of the men and women behind bars. The research and art is displayed on a site that also lists grievances against the companies, as well as the artists' crimes. It's a self-funded project that pays the prisoners for their talent—albeit with a cut for the services inmates use to receive cash inside—which is a rarity behind prison walls.
This isn't the first time Greenspan and Tider's antics have made headlines. They're the same duo behind the Edward Snowden statue that briefly appeared in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park last year before being taken by the NYPD. The friends are also former ad-men who think the key distinction between these recent political endeavors, and their old gig is the use of pathos to inspire people to act on pressing issues, rather than to buy products.
"For us, it's ideas about surveillance, ideas about privacy, ideas about justice," Greenspan tells VICE. "Those are things we wanted to hopefully get people more excited about."
We called Greenspan and Tider up for a chat about the project, what they expect it to achieve, and where they're steering donations.
VICE: So how did this project get started?
Jeff Greenspan: We were doing a lot of research about companies that were destroying the environment, and we started looking at what their actions were and we thought to ourselves, "Wow, these guys are really criminals." These corporations and the people who run them were engaged in illegal activities, or they have highly illegal activities as business practices.
We started having this thought of how can we get people emotionally interested in this issue. There's a lot of talk about climate change and the activities these companies engage in, but it kind of gets relegated to news. It doesn't break through emotionally. We're also very aware of people in jail for petty crimes. By the way, the people who're in [prison] for our project are not in for petty crimes—we're telling you how it came about. But it's pretty ridiculous that there are people sitting in [prison] for minor offenses or relatively minor offenses, while the people who run these corporations commit far greater damage to the world than these people do, yet they make profit off it. So then we thought, well, wouldn't it be interesting if we had people in prison—people who're behind bars—literally looking at someone who's committed exponentially more damage and have to draw them.
How did you get in touch with the prisoner artists in the first place?
Jeff Greenspan: We spent a good three months finding out how not to get in touch with prisoners in prisons. We ultimately went on eBay and started looking for people who were selling prison art. And we found some users who were selling multiple pieces of prison art that was of good quality and mostly portraiture. So we saw the web sites that were also selling—and these were generally relatives and friends of people in prison who had a lot of talent. A lot of these prisoners would sell a portrait of Madonna or Elvis or a political figure for $20 or $30. We were able to look at the quality of their work and got in touch with them.
We did something very similar with Facebook. We found a couple of Facebook pages that were devoted to prison art, and we found people with talent. But once we found those, the project kind of went viral. Andrew and I started getting letters in the mail from people in prison to all over the country, saying, "I served time with this prisoner in Arizona State. Now, I'm in this prison, and he told me you were looking for people who could draw really well. If you reach out to my sister, she can send you examples of my work."
Because most of these prisoners can't send packages or artwork to someone who is not on their authorized list, they would use their relatives or their sisters or their parents as a conduit to get us to see the quality of their work.
Is humanizing the inmates part of the project, too?
Andrew Tider: It was something that happened along the way for us was because we were corresponding with these inmates—there was a lot of letter writing. That was the only way a lot of prisoners could tell their story. These are people who have been in really tough situations and have grown up in very disadvantaged communities. That doesn't excuse what they've done, and they're very quick to point out, "Yes, I did this thing." But it also brings a lot of questions about what are we doing with our criminal justice system. Are we actually doing something positive? Are we reforming people?
Did you become personally close to any of these artists?
Jeff Greenspan: I'm friendly with many of their wives, sisters, daughters, cousins, brothers, and sons because it was their families who were sending us the artwork and following up with us about the project. I've talked to the moms of a couple of these inmates, and a few of the inmates I've spoken directly with on the phone.
Some of these people are murderers, and in fairness, we haven't spoken to the victims' families from these crimes—or the victims themselves in some situations. So we only know the inmates' side of the story. That said, some of them are very touching stories. One of them killed his best friend when he was very young, maybe 16 or 17 or 18—and it was allegedly an accident. The inmate wrote something to the effect of—I don't have the words in front of me—"It doesn't matter how long they keep me in for, and it doesn't matter if they even let me out. I killed my best friend, so I'm already in the worst jail for the rest of my life."
There were other people imprisoned for vehicular manslaughter or multiple attempts of robbery, where they're serving 17, 20, 30 years. And we're not suggesting that they should be free, and we're not suggesting there shouldn't be some kind of penance or rehabilitation at all. But you have to ask yourself why we lock up so many people, and such a high percentage of people of color and people of limited wealth, while people of massive wealth and generally of one color get to pretty much run the country. And when we say run the country, it's because they have enough political and financial clout to change rules, and when they break the rules they can't change, they pay a settlement to walk away.
I'd imagine the families are excited, too. Since the prisoners are invisible to most eyes, this may be the only way they get their names out there.
Jeff Greenspan: The inmates are all excited, obviously, because with each set of crimes we've listed, we've also listed contacts for the artists. So each of these artists hopes someone will reach out to them. I have to tell you, and I don't remember which one it was, but one of them said we're the only ones who ever write them. A lot of these inmates, their families have abandoned them or they have no families or they're out of sight, out of mind for a lot for people. They're emotional because they would love for people to contact them. I know they would all hope for other people to ask them to draw portraits because it's a way for them to make money.
That in turn makes their relatives very happy because their loved ones behind bars have very few people on the outside to talk to them. One of the inmates told us this was one the first time he's ever made an honest dollar. And how good he felt and how wonderful he felt that his talent and his work from inside the prison system was going to be seen by a real audience.
Were you forced to exclude artwork for this project?
Andrew Tider: We were pretty clear about what we were looking for for these portraits because we had a specific artistic vision for the project. But some of the inmates would editorialize in their own way. Maybe they drew a straight portrait, but there would be dollar signs on the CEO's tie or devil horns or something like that. I think that this is proof that when they read about what these people have done, they connected with it emotionally in such a way that they weren't expressing what we wanted to express but really felt their own way. At the same time, the goal of these was not to really editorialize. The project itself editorializes.
I noticed you're donating all proceeds to the Bernie Sanders campaign, which I guess isn't shocking, but what's the story there?
Andrew Tider: The reason is the pillars of the Bernie Sanders campaign: prison reform and making the people on Wall Street, and other corporations beyond Wall Street, accountable for their actions. The third pillar is to remove this type of corporate control over our government and the election process. We feel if he got elected, he would move the country toward a place where a project like this would be less necessary.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Check out the Captured project here.
Follow Brian Josephs on Twitter.