Life Beyond Bars

The Works Progress Administration funded the creation of public works like dams, bridges—and more than 30 prisons and jails.

Then

Works Progress Adminstration, 1935–43

California, Georgia, Indiana

Then

Works Progress Adminstration, 1935–43

California, Georgia, Indiana

When tallying up the achievements of the Works Progress Administration, many of us might think of massive building projects such as the Hoover Dam, the social realist murals of the Federal Art Project, or the stark black-and-white images of Farm Security Administration photographers. Few would name the construction of jails and prisons. But at the same time that the New Deal agency was drumming up jobs for out-of-work painters and sprucing up national parks, it was also building carceral infrastructure nationwide. And, in its final months in 1943, the WPA would focus its resources on fine-tuning the machinery of an entirely different kind of domestic imprisonment.

As wide swaths of the population fell into desperate poverty during the Great Depression, individuals who may never have turned to theft or other illegal activities found themselves doing so in order to survive—and, sometimes, landing in prison. According to the US Department of Justice, between 1925 and 1939, the number of incarcerated people grew by 88,000 people nationwide—increasing at an average annual rate of 5 percent.

By 1937, 137 out of every 100,000 people were incarcerated, a rate of imprisonment that would not be matched for decades. More people were imprisoned for larceny than for any violent crime. ] Historian Ethan Blue, whose 2012 book Doing Time in the Great Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons, examines incarceration in two of the country’s largest prison populations during the 1930s, points out that Texas and California, especially, absorbed migrants from other places who were looking for work. The prison system also served to control the downtrodden laborers who flooded these areas, he writes. Increased fear of crime may have also led to increased arrests.

Alcatraz Island and federal penitentiary in San Francisco Bay, 1930s. Courtesy of AFP/Getty Images.

The WPA supplied funds and labor for the construction or renovation of over 30 jails countrywide. It also built three new prisons—the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut; Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, Georgia; and the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana—and carried out improvement projects on other facilities around the United States. Around $5 million (in 1930s dollars) was spent constructing the three new prisons. The improvement projects also received large cash infusions; in 1938, $1.1 million in WPA funds were funneled to Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay to build new staff housing and reinforce prison bars and locks, among other renovations. Auburn Prison in upstate New York received $226,000 to build a new cell block, guard house, and incinerator. At Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, the WPA allotted $27,000 for workers to blast away natural rock ledges—ie, possible escape routes—that officials feared were too close to the prison walls.

Some WPA prison projects were aimed at prisoner welfare. For instance, a new hospital was built at Florida State Prison; the WPA earmarked $100,000 for social rehabilitation programs at five correctional facilities in New York State ; and noted leftist painter and Federal Art Project employee Ben Shahn was hired to paint murals at Rikers in New York City.

But these nods to well-being could not tamp down the misery of prison life. “From arrival in prison to departure, either on parole or on a hearse, punishment in the 1930s seemingly did little to lessen suffering,” writes Blue, “while entrenching class hierarchies and exacerbating racial and sexual violence.” In the segregated prison system, the “rehabilitative idea espoused by progressive penologists and prison administrators was, by and large, a matter of white privilege.”

Then

Works Progress Adminstration, 1935–43

California, Georgia, Indiana

Now

Jasmine Nyende, 2019

Los Angeles, California

Now

Jasmine Nyende, 2019

Los Angeles, California

Earlier this year, Common Threads—the Los Angeles-based fiber-arts collective and skill-share that I run—began inviting members of the community to create work on a loom fashioned from a decommissioned jail bed. The bed was acquired from Justice LA, which works with communities to “reclaim, reimagine, and reinvest what L.A. County could do with the $3.5 billion allocated to building two new jails.” Los Angeles has the largest jail system in the United States, with an average daily inmate population of 17,024 and an average stay of 62 days. Incarceration touches the lives of tens of thousands of people in this city, and the jail-bed loom is meant to help heal, witness, and provide space for people who have been impacted by the carceral system.

Nyende with young members of the community, weaving on the jail-bed loom.

Members of the community are invited to make simple tapestries on the jail loom, using yarn and scrap fabric. When they are completed, the tapestries will be sewn together and donated to a transitional home for the formerly incarcerated. I want people to use handicrafts to feel inspired to create from where they are coming from, and to freely experiment with an art form they may not be familiar with.

Nyende reads a poem while sitting on the jail-bed loom.
Weaving on the loom using yarn and scrap fabric.

For a recent show at Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, California, I included—alongside the jail-bed loom—small, round rugs that I had made from scrap-shredded fabrics. I want these rugs to be useful, appropriate for prayer or meditation. When you sit on one, you feel a softness. I want people to meditate on the rugs and consider the current state of incarceration. In the installation, each rug also includes a text, presenting the sitter with a question about safety; I want the sitter to consider ways in which prisons rob our communities of justice. I don’t feel that art needs to come from using toxic materials; it can come from soft, welcoming material. It can come from starting with a question. I consider handicrafts to be a way to provide care and support for other people. I want people to see their hands and bodies as the first place for healing to happen.

Jasmine Nyende is a new media artist from South Central Los Angeles who explores the fields of social media and community-based social practice using poetry, plays, and experimental performance. She runs the fiber-arts collective Common Threads, and her work has been shown at institutions including the Hammer Museum, Human Resources, and Sade Gallery, all in Los Angeles.

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