Jail inmate finds solace in art, makes do with supplies

Jail inmate finds solace in art, makes do with supplies


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BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) — After eight months in the Kitsap County Jail, Sally Birge could have taken a turn for the worse.

"The loud noise just about drove me nuts," she said.

It was art, she said, that got her through.

"Without art I would have gone crazy," said Birge, 39, of Bremerton.

She served eight months of a 12-month sentence for violating a no-contact order with her partner of 12 years and was released this spring. While inside the jail, she secretly drew more than 200 biblically themed bookmarks using the stubby jail-issue ballpoint pen and wax paper that covers the adhesive backing on menstrual pads.

"You can be in jail, but it's how you use the time," she said. "God has a purpose for me."

Although jail inmates don't have art programs or supplies available to them, prison inmates do. And a researcher who reviewed dozens of art programs for inmates found numerous benefits for the inmates themselves, along with the staff.

The Kitsap County Jail, like any correctional facility, can be a loud, inhospitable place, Birge said. There was the blaring TV in the common area, slamming doors, the sounds of people arguing — often over food — or talking to themselves.

Drawing helped fend off the loneliness of being away from her partner, Ramona, along with anxiety, depression and conflict of the jail. It also helped her process the death of her mother- in-law. To keep from being found out — the jail has strict rules about how materials can be used — she sent the bookmarks out in the mail and collected them once she was released.

The project started when she decided she wanted a bookmark so she wouldn't have to fold back the corner on her Bible. She has enjoyed drawing since she was young and said the more she does it, the better she gets.

"A lot of this we have to hide," she said of inmates. "We have to hide a lot of our talents."

A fellow inmate, a diabetic, would slide the brown paper bags used to deliver special meals to inmates under Birge's door. Birge used the bags to make greeting cards, but they were often confiscated, she said.

Although she put the backing paper strips to use as bookmarks, she didn't have a use for all the pads. She liked to keep her cell tidy, however, so she used them to clean the floor.

Art supplies are not available to jail inmates. Sheriff's Office spokesman Scott Wilson said it's just not in the budget.

"That's not to say we wouldn't do it in the future, but we don't have the infrastructure in place to do that now," he said.

He wasn't surprised to hear that an inmate had found a way to make art, noting that prisoners have long been known for their resourcefulness, including American prisoners during the Vietnam War, who under the threat of punishment would weave little American flags out of lint.

"Inmates can be pretty ingenious," he said. "They can also turn a simple item into something that can be used as a weapon, and we have to be cognizant of that."

There also is the matter of inmates creating something that could be used for currency and traded, and then during and after its creation, the jail would have to find a way to store the artwork.

"Once they are done with their sentence, they have to be able to take it with them when they leave," Wilson said, noting that the jail is considered a short-term facility, compared to prison. "There are a lot of logistics there."

The state prison system has art supplies available to purchase, said spokeswoman Norah West, but the system has canceled many of its art programs in recent years due to budget cuts.

However, West said, the department does value how art can help inmates as well as staff.

"It gives people something to do," she said.

That also was the conclusion of a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts project that reviewed 48 studies of art in juvenile and adult correctional facilities across the United States. Dr. Amanda Gardner, of New Mexico, one of the researchers on the project, said while some studies found art programming had no effect, no studies found the arts had a negative effect and most studies found art programming was overwhelmingly positive.

The studies found that art programs led to reduced recidivism, reduced disciplinary infractions and less violence. The reduction in violence was one of the biggest drivers showing art programing actually saved money, she said.

"They were not dealing with the medical outcome of violence," Gardner said. "It's calming, and results in less tension between inmates and staff."

Gardner said there was a difference between the feasibility of art programing in jails vs. prisons.

"The jails are very chaotic," she said. "They go jail to prison, jail to street, then back in. It's hard to have any kind of structured program."

Art supplies also can pose security challenges, she said.

"There is a lot of creativity in jail," she said.

One of Birge's supporters, Sheryl Ann Piercy, social services director for the Salvation Army in Bremerton, said she was moved by stories such as Birge's and said she had heard from jail inmates who found ways to comfort themselves and others while in jail, including a woman who made cosmetics out of Skittles.

"I am inspired by the will to survive and express themselves," she said.

Birge needed help getting the water turned back on at her house and was hoping to sell the bookmarks. Then she hoped to sell them to raise money to buy more art supplies. She found, however, she was a soft touch for anybody who wanted one and ended up giving many away as gifts.

"If I know I can help somebody, if it will make their day, that means more to me than pennies," she said.

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Information from: Kitsap Sun, http://www.kitsapsun.com/

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Andrew Binion

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