Alaskan prisoners make art to benefit regional nonprofits and find redemption

In Alaska's capital, a prison's art program gives inmates the skills to carve and create, donating their work to benefit regional nonprofits. 

Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Kenny Smith talks about his carving at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, Alaska, on April 13. Mr. Smith, who was recently released from prison, worked in the prison's hobby shop making art to benefit Alaskan nonprofits.

At first, Kenny Smith started making artwork out of boredom. There's not much to do during long days at Lemon Creek Correctional Center (LCCC).

Mr. Smith, who was behind bars for nine years before being released this past week, began going to the prison's hobby shop a few years ago. He made little boxes and simple items, sometimes sending them to his mother in Wasilla, Alaska.

Thanks to the rejuvenation of the prison's art program the past couple years, though, Smith has been able to take classes and create pieces he never thought he'd make. Four days before his release from prison, Smith showed off a paddle he had made. It was complete with painted faces and abalone shells embedded in the wood.

The art isn't just for show. The Sealaska Corporation sponsors the carving program, in collaboration with art classes offered through Sealaska Heritage Institute's (SHI) Haa Latseen Community Project, and takes many of the pieces the artists create and donates them. The paddles, masks, and other pieces go to nonprofits all over southeast Alaska, where they are auctioned off to raise money for the organizations.

Bill Bennett, the manager of the Sealaska carving program, said the artwork (no matter how good it is) all finds a spot with one of more than a dozen nonprofits throughout the area. Mr. Bennett said one nonprofit that particularly appreciates the donations is Helping Ourselves Prevent Emergencies (HOPE) on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, which helps support victims of personal or domestic violence.

LCCC Superintendent Bob Cordle said Smith's original charge was second-degree sexual assault, and that Smith was in prison this time because of a parole violation related to that original charge. Smith said the fact that his art is going to organizations like HOPE is giving him a chance at redemption in a way.

"It definitely gives us an opportunity to give back to the communities that guys like me...."

Smith trailed off, clearing his throat and looking away for a moment.

"I get a little bit emotional," he said. "It gives me an opportunity to give back to the kind of people that maybe I hurt in the past."

Ray Watkins, a master carver who teaches classes for SHI, says that some of his students were very artistic before prison, but added that he was impressed with how quickly many of the others had learned. Mr. Watkins classes includes ones on basic maskmaking techniques as well as more advances classes on times like articulated raven masks. The beaks of these masks open and close as the person wearing it moves. 

This artwork can be seen around the prison and the community. Bennett, the manager of the art program, comes over a couple times a week from his office in Klawock, Alaska, bringing wood for the program. Bennett gives two pieces of wood to inmates – or residents, as he prefers to say – one for the program and one for themselves. For example, when Smith gets the wood, he carves one paddle for Sealaska and one for himself. He can keep the personal paddle or mail it to someone.

He can also give it to the prison to sell. At the entrance of the prison, a large display case, which was made in the hobby shop, holds masks, rattles, paddles, and other art made by the prisoners.

Part of the proceeds for those pieces, LCCC Assistant Superintendent Daryl Webster said, is required to go to court fines, restitution, child support, or other court-mandated fees. The rest of it can be sent to family or put in an account for the inmates.

"You don't make a bunch of money down there," Smith said, "but you definitely make a few dollars and it helps you stay going."

Smith sent most of his artwork to his mother because he didn't have a place to keep it when he was released in April. His favorite piece, he said, is a paddle with a frog carved and painted on it. His mother, he said, loves frogs and she was impressed with his piece.

Some of the pieces have also impressed bidders at auctions for nonprofits, Bennett said. Most of pieces sell for fairly affordable prices, he said, but a bentwood box from LCCC once sold for more than $5,000 in an auction to benefit Haa Aaní Economic Development.

That's by far the most any of the artwork has sold for, Bennett said, but money from those auctions helps fuel nonprofits that are in need of funding.

Bennett has also seen it affect the lives of the inmates after they are released. Smith said he isn't sure if he'll continue doing art, but he said he's going to continue to devote his time to help others. Whether it's working with Bennett to help haul wood or operate the program somehow, or whether it's finding a nonprofit locally, he said he wants to find a way to help out.

Bennett said he has seen people changed for the better after going through the program. One man, he said, was walking by the Sealaska building in Juneau, Alaska, and spotted Bennett. He told Bennett the carving skills he learned in the prison helped him find a job and earn income for his family after getting out. The exchange was so heartfelt, Bennett said, that he had tears in his eyes as he walked back to his office afterward.

"It's a wonderful thing," Bennett said. "I believe it's making a difference, not only with that young man that had gotten out and talked with me outside the building, but also with these organizations. With funding being cut back on all fronts, it keeps them doing their good work that they do."

This article was reported by Juneau Empire.

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