A Loyola Marymount University exhibit gives prison inmates a voice through art

By Joe Piasecki














Exonerated after spending 20 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction, Loyola Marymount University sociology student Franky Carrillo reflects on a self portrait he made inside Folsom State Prison — a pencil sketch of a naked, anguished man seated on a plain wooden chair.

“It takes me right back into my prison cell,” says Carrillo, 39. “I was sitting where this guy is. My life was on hold. This image was all that I had.”

At 16, Carrillo was arrested and later convicted of a drive-by shooting in Lynwood despite his and his father’s insistence that he was at home in Maywood watching TV at the time of the killing.

In March 2011, having lived behind bars since January 1991, Carrillo walked out of Los Angeles Superior Court a free man after a judge overturned his murder conviction. Five men who were teenagers when they had fingered Carrillo for the murder recanted their testimony, saying they did not see the shooter and had been lead by investigators. The prosecutor who had won Carrillo’s conviction cried on the witness stand.

“I’d gone from a child to a man without much life experience to really call myself a man, and so art was my way of exercising what it is to be alive, I suppose. This drawing was really a projection of my life at that point: The only thing I had to define me was myself,” Carrillo said.

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Carrillo’s work and other art created by or about prisoners are featured in “Voices of Incarceration,” an exhibit that opened Saturday at LMU’s Laband Art Gallery and continues through March 16 (coincidentally, three years to the day that Carrillo was freed).

“It’s not the world of art I’m used to working in, that’s for sure,” said gallery director Carolyn Peters, who traces the concept back to visiting a prison art class run by the nonprofit William James Assoc. at San Quentin State Prison. “I went in there with some anxiety, but the studio felt like a haven. The students were focused on self expression — being human beings and connecting with other people in the class, too.”

The exhibit features linotype prints and several screen-print posters created by some of those artists as well as paintings by a man who has spent decades in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. Jack L. Morris, who was convicted of second degree murder, works in whatever materials he can find — including peanut butter oil he extracts from his meal packets.

Artist and activist Sheila Pinkel began corresponding with Morris several years ago after seeing some of his paintings displayed at the now-defunct Midnight Special bookstore. Morris had mailed them there in response to a radio advertisement.

Pinkel, who has since compiled a book of Morris’ art and poetry, loaned to the exhibit a large scale photo installation of her creation that depicts furniture and other products manufactured by prisoners for pennies an hour and sold by the California Dept. of Corrections for multi-million dollar profits.

She equates prison work to slave labor and decries Pelican Bay’s practice of holding prisoners in solitary confinement for decades on suspicion of having gang ties.

“The reason we do this is to create information. It’s not about our art — it’s about this horrible situation,” she said.

Another artist and activist, Richard Ross, loaned the exhibit a series of photographs documenting juvenile hall inmates in California. The drab institutional settings and legally required blurring of their occupants faces contrasts sharply with a series of colorful but deeply tragic portraits of child prisoners in Russia and Ukraine by artist Michael Chelbin.

A series of photographs by artist Alyse Emdur documents the painted backdrops that inmates of many American prisons are required to use for photos taken in visiting rooms.

“You’d think it would be this escape, but they don’t have a choice. Maybe they don’t want to pose in front of this idealized background. Maybe they want their loved ones to see what prison actually looks like,” Emdur said.

Peters finds several common themes in the art created by prisoners — images representing the artists’ ethnic backgrounds (ink-on-handkerchief drawings of Aztec gods and warriors; a linotype print of a samurai warrior on horseback) and symbols noting the passage of time.

Within the art, “Prisoners’ relationship with time is a paradox. They’re trying to serve out their sentence and get through all that time, and yet they also have the gift of time. There’s a lot of detail in these artworks. They have the gift and the curse of time to pass,” Peters said.

“It’s hard to narrate your life as a prisoner, but art can provoke a deeper understanding of identity that goes beyond words,” Carrillo said.

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While in prison Carrillo also used words to express himself, writing letter after letter to various organizations and law firms pleading for help to prove his innocence. His break came not from those letters, but from word of mouth through Toni Carter, a teacher he assisted during prison education classes.

Carter told Carrillo’s story to Ellen Eggers, a state public defender who took the case on pro bono. Eggers received help from the California Innocence Project, the law firm Morrison Foerster and the Center for Restorative Justice at LMU.

The Center for Restorative Justice began in 2009 as a seminar series to teach students about methods of resolving crime and conflict outside the adversarial court system. The concept has become increasingly relevant in the juvenile courts, where efforts to send young offenders into rehabilitation programs instead of juvenile halls and camps have been proving fruitful and gaining ground.

The program has since expanded to include LMU School of Education students who are now running a restorative justice program at Westchester High School that serves as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions.
Scott Wood, a law professor who founded the Center for Restorative Justice and serves as its director, met Carrillo at Folsom and helped Eggers’ legal team convince the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to re-examine Carrillo’s case file.

The hearing to overturn Carrillo’s conviction “ended with the D.A.’s office conceding the case. This was the first time I ever saw that happen.  There was a lightning bolt through the courtroom,” Wood said.

With few other immediate housing options, Carrillo lived with Scott and his wife for a few months after his release.

Things have gotten better since. Carrillo and his partner — Efty Sharony, a social worker investigator with the Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy — celebrated the birth of a baby boy in November.

Inspired by his new family, Carrillo has also returned to creating art, an impulse that initially fell by the wayside after he was freed.

“When I was in prison, art was a form of therapy, creating a world I wanted to be in. All that sort of changed when I got out,” Carrillo said. “What’s bizarre now is that I draw a lot of things that relate to prison. I also draw a lot of trees, being without them for so long.”

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Next to Carrillo’s work at the Laband Gallery, Maureen Murdock inspects a linotype print of the San Quentin landscape — a tense black-and-white depiction of barbed wire, prison walls, a guard tower and fog rolling off the bay.

The print was created by her son, Brendan Murdock. It’s the view from his prison block, she says.

“I know those towers. They’re pretty scary, because the guys in those towers have guns,” Maureen Murdock said.

Brendan Murdock, a Venice native who attended Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, is serving a four-year burglary sentence. The 46 year old as an MFA in fine art and had been working as a graphic artist before being caught with a stolen computer, his mother said.

“For a $1,500 laptop, Californians are paying $50,000 a year to keep him incarcerated,” she said.

Murdock will be released next week but can’t return home — he’s required to serve out his probation in San Francisco, the location of his offense, his mother said. Murdock has a place to stay for a few weeks, but where he’ll live after that and how he’ll make a living is anyone’s guess.

“I can’t answer any of those questions. We don’t know yet,” Maureen Murdock said. “I think it’s a bad idea to put him back into the situation where he got in trouble.”

“Voices of Incarceration” continues through March 16 at the Laband Art Gallery on the Loyola Marymount University campus in Westchester. The gallery is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, and admission is free. Call (310) 338-3087 or visit cfa.lmu.edu/labandgallery.