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Groundbreaking Prison Arts Conference at Rutgers

Rutgers Brings Together Professionals, Artists, Former Prisoners and Students to Explore Prison Arts
Prisoner Artwork
IRW challenges conventional thinking about art by addressing art culture in prison systems.

NEW BRUNSWICK—For the next three days, the Institute for Research on Women (IRW) at Rutgers University is hosting a conference that will explore artstic expression as a response to mass incarceration.

The conference, titled "Marking Time: Prison Arts and Activism," makes history as being the first conference of it’s kind to be hosted at Rutgers.

Founded in 1977, the IRW has been in the forefront of feminist research for over thirty years. Their faculty and administrators work to advance scholarship on gender, sexuality, and women, according to their website.

From October 8-10, the IRW will be sponsoring workshops, lectures, performances and presentations by artists, activists, writers and scholars who will facilitate a conversation about the manifestation of art in the incarcerated community.

“From photographs taken in visiting rooms to poetry and theater, art serves as an expressive tool, a means of political protest, and a creative survival strategy for many prisoners,” said Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, the conference lead organizer who is writing a book about art made in prisons.

The keynote speaker is Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet, author, teacher, and spokesperson for Campaign for Youth Justice, a national campaign “dedicated to to ending the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system”, according to their website.

Betts will be speaking tonight in the Zimmereli Art Museum's Lower Dodge Gallery.

At the age of 16, Betts was involved in perpetrating a carjacking, and although he had no prior offenses, he was convicted for six felonies, tried as an adult, and sentenced to eight years in adult prison facilities around Virgina.

In his NAACP Image Award-winning memoir "A Question of Freedom," Betts writes about “coming of age in prison, and confronting some of the most profound questions in America, about violence, race and the American justice system.

Betts went on to earn an MFA at Warren Wilson, the most prestigious low-residency programs in the country, and became an advocate for the fair treatment of juveniles” according to Huffington Post.

Other speakers include intellectuals from universities across the nation including: Temple University, Penn Law School, Michigan State University, Texas A&M, Cornell University, and University of Southern California.

Attendees will also have the opportunity to hear first hand accounts from people who have gone through the prison system.

On Friday, October 10, the Alfa Art Gallery at 108 Church Street will be hosting a reception for their newest exhibit "Prison Obscura," which includes real artwork made by prisoners.  The reception lasts from 4:30-7pm, and the exhibit will be on display through November 1.

This program has been made possible by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and by generous support from the Puffin Foundation Ltd, an organization that provides grants to marginalized artists and art organizers, according to the IRW website.