Creativity Behind Bars – a New Approach

In Canada today, over 36,000 adults are incarcerated in federal and provincial institutions (117 per 100,000 population)**, and in the United States, the numbers are much higher with over 2,100,000 prisoners in custody (488 per 100,000 population)*.

The reality is that most of these inmates will eventually receive parole, or upon serving their full sentence will be returned to the community with no supervision.

Yet if you ask the average person how they feel about inmates, they will tell you to “throw away the key” or “their sentences should be longer”.

An innovative Canadian cooperative has taken a very different approach to working with inmates in federal institutions.

InsideArt Cooperative ( is a trail-blazing arts marketing cooperative, located in the Fraser Valley area of British Columbia. It is based in the federal prison system and is owned by its artist members. It is managed by Community Futures South Fraser with funding support from various organizations including, Cooperative Development Initiative, ArtsNow, and Vancity Credit Union.

As a cooperative, represents the true essence of democratic decision member – one vote. Exposure and active engagement in this type of process provides inmates the opportunity to learn skills in negotiation, communication, accepting compromise and working for the good of something “bigger” than one individual. This approach, while contradicting prison social systems, helps prepare them for the reality of life outside of an institution.

InsideArt Cooperative markets high quality art, made mostly by federal inmates, while fostering a culture of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency, and encouraging the personal and professional growth of its members.

InsideArt Cooperative’s vision is of federal inmates who learn the values of responsibility and self-sufficiency, and live by means other than crime and prison; who help society’s tax burden by paying personal taxes, and weaning themselves from inmate pay. The goal is to encourage people, who upon their release, have less dependence on social agencies for money, food, and shelter; and who contribute meaningfully to their community as productive members of society.

This program, with the goal of tax paying inmates, is the first of its kind in Canada. Randy White, past Member of Parliament and Conservative Justice Critic endorsed the program as a positive way of dealing with inmate reintegration .

Inside Art Cooperative encourages artists within the Fraser Valley community to volunteer their time to work with a group of talented artists who happen to be long term inmates. Glass work, wood carving and other talents that the inmates already possessed have been refined with the help of artists who are not incarcerated (known as “outmates”).

As the first “outmate”, local glass artist Sid Gould contributes his art expertise, business knowledge, and enthusiasm to this unique venture. Sid is the artist owner of Sandstorm Creative Glass Works Studio – the largest multi-purpose glass studio in Western Canada. In 2004, Sandstorm received the Abbotsford Business Excellence Award for Social Responsibility in recognition of Sid’s tireless contribution to the community.

Both the artists behind bars, and the “outmates” beyond them give back to the community by donating their art to non-profit organizations including Ronald McDonald House, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Big Brothers / Big Sisters and the Breast Cancer Foundation. The donated items include elaborate carved chests, furniture, and paintings, enabling these community charitable organizations to help raise much needed funding.

Inside Art is not run by Corrections Canada, but through the guidance of Community Futures South Fraser. Current funding is provided by the Federal Cooperatives Secretariat’s Cooperative Development Initiative (CDI), which supports innovative co-ops (and InsideArt is the first incorporated co-operative to operate within the federal prison system). Community Futures South Fraser provides entrepreneurial training for inmates in the program, matches outside artists with inmates as mentors, and helps develop outside sales opportunities.

“We began Inside Art to assist people in prison to develop their sense of self worth, while they were creating saleable art and generating revenue,” says Stacey Corriveau, Inside Art Manager. “The long term goals are to see more inmates at other institutions participating, more community involvement, and having inmates begin to be self sustaining and tax paying members of society – whether behind bars or in the community.”

Today, inmates at Mountain Institution in Agassiz are the only ones active in this “one of a kind” Canadian social enterprise, but plans are underway to include two other federal prisons in the Fraser Valley, and then branch out beyond the local area.

This type of innovative approach challenges the views that inmates should be abandoned without support for making change in their lives.

Philippe Clement has been serving a life sentence since 1977. Surprised to discover his creative gift, he chose the name “Philemon” as his artistic pseudonym. Philemon is the originator of a unique style of fused glass interpretation that looks more like a painting than a glass piece. “It is a great feeling to me to know that whoever has one of my fused pieces can say that there is no other one in the world like it. The amount of glass powder, the glass grain, or the solid pieces of glass in each art piece cannot be repeated. In addition, each fused piece has its own color, texture, and brightness that is unique to that firing,” he says. It is a great feeling to me to know that whoever has one of my fused pieces can say that there is no other one in the world like it. For many of my pieces, I also hand carve the wood frames.”

Philemon is just one of the men at Mountain Institution who is seeking a better path than the one that led him to prison.

While this social enterprise is still in its infancy, it is a positive beginning that may provide a model for other prison systems to follow.

* U.S. Department of Justice

** Correctional Service Canada

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