PSU Art and Social Practice Program

The Inside Show

An innovative collaboration among Portland artists and prison inmates gives lively, often funny voice to the view from inside the walls


It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”
Angela Y. DavisFreedom is a Constant Struggle – Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of Movements.


The first time I set foot into an American jail happened in New York City in 1978, while accompanying lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights during a visit to a city jail with their clients. My familiarity with the German prison system had not prepared me for what I encountered on U.S. soil in that and later visits, starting with the physical factors of overcrowding and horrid sanitary conditions alone and amplified by reports of continual violence both among those who were incarcerated and from those who guarded them. The memory was triggered, for one, by the fact that the New York City Council voted this week to close the abominable Rikers Island Jail complex, and secondly, by a visit inside a prison, this time in Oregon, but for all intents and purposes on a different planet from Rikers.

View from the Parking Lot at Columbia River Correctional Institution.

Bureaucratic hurdles to enter the Northeast Portland minimum-security prison were surprisingly few. My pre-approved camera was checked both at entry and upon leaving, and the dress code requirements (no blues allowed, lest you couldn’t be differentiated from the inmates) were minimal. For this one-time visit I did not have to undergo volunteer training, thus being spared the instruction not to be open to manipulation from prisoners, an aspect that always struck me as sowing suspiciousness and bound to instill an us vs them attitude right from the start.