Making Art in Prison: Survival and Resistance

by Janie Paul

The United States is the most incarcerating nation in the world.

Over two million people are locked behind bars, where they endure the degradation and violence of a dehumanizing system. But in prisons around the country, incarcerated people have regained their dignity by creating objects of beauty, meaning, and value.

In Making Art in Prison: Survival and Resistance, Janie Paul introduces readers to the culture and aesthetics of prison art communities, and shares heart wrenching, poignant, and often surprisingly humorous artists’ narratives. These powerful stories and images upend the manufactured stereotypes of those living in prison, imparting a real human dimension—a critical step in the movement to end mass incarceration.

For 27 years, Paul has traveled throughout Michigan to meet artists and select work for the project she co-founded: The Annual Exhibitions of Artists in Michigan Prisons, an initiative of the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan. Pedagogical as well as curatorial, the project has provided crucial validation for the artists. Making Prison Art features over 200 images of their extraordinary work.

Delving deeply into the ways in which incarcerated artists create meaning through their artistic practice, Paul explains how the making, sharing, and formation of artistic friendships within prisons can constitute acts of resistance against the violence and banality of prison life. Most of the artists did not make art before coming to prison.

Their accomplishments show that art making need not be a privilege of the few, but is rather a basic human need, and in these circumstances, a necessary means of survival.

Making Art in Prison reveals—through the eyes of the artists who have lived through it—what mass incarceration looks and feels like in the United States. It reveals the ways in which they keep their humanity intact; it invites us to reflect on our own humanity and the problem of living in a country that incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world. It also invites us to look closely at the images and appreciate the richness of life and luminosity emerging from the darkest corner of our country.

About the Author

Janie Paul is a painter, curator, and writer. She is the senior curator and co-founder, with her late husband Buzz Alexander, of the Exhibitions of Artists in Michigan Prisons, a project of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). She is Arthur F. Thurnau professor emerita at the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan where she has won many awards for her art and social justice work with incarcerated people and children experiencing poverty. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Connect with Janie at

Books will be available at bookstores and online in early May.

Early releases will be sold in Ann Arbor at three events: 

  • March 21 | 5:00 p.m. | Duderstadt Gallery | Opening Celebration of the 27th Annual Exhibition of Artists in Michigan
  • March 26 | 10:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. | Chesebrough Auditorium Lobby, Chrysler Center
  • April 24 | 6:30 p.m. | Literati Bookstore reading and presentation

Books can be pre-ordered at the publisher website page.

“Paul is an astute critic and activist, but what leaps from the page is her keen eye for artistic subtlety and nuance—the images she includes here represent a stunning array of themes, styles, and perspectives. This remarkable collection offers loving testimony to the ways imprisoned artists fight for their and our survival by channeling pain and trauma into politically charged and visually stunning art.”
Stephen J. Hartnett,
Professor of Communication, and Director of the University of Colorado College-in-Prison Program

MAKING ART IN PRISON is a beautiful and poetic reflection on the transformative power of art behind prison walls.”
Alma Robinson,
Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts

"What is art? Beauty, communication, challenge? Sure. It can be all those things. But how about agency? How about dignity? How about staking a claim to one’s own humanity? In Making Art in Prison: Survival and Resistance, Janie Paul delves deep beyond the immediate visual impact of the artwork that has escaped prison cells onto the pages of her book to explore how art can demolish the prison walls of the soul."
— Sister Helen Prejean C.S.J.,
Author of Dead Man Walking

March 21, 2023        Invisible Republic        ISBN: 9781955125277        Hardcover: $40

Release Date: 02/23/2023
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project