Looking Back on “Art Inside”

By Ginny Emiko OshiroJanuary 14, 2024

Looking Back on “Art Inside”
Ginny Emiko Oshiro reflects on Annie Buckley’s Art Inside series and her work with the the Prison Arts Collective:

In day-to-day life, we are constantly bombarded with images and perceptions of what it means to be a “prisoner.” Television channels are awash with docuseries depicting tattooed individuals in prisons, scheming against the system, society, and each other. These stories have become so common that they no longer shock us. Our feelings towards people in prison have become numb; at best, we feel a detached gratitude or self-righteousness, believing their confinement somehow makes us safer, contributing to our peaceful sleep.

This is why Art Inside is a pivotal series. It unveils the reality of complex, redeemable human beings existing behind the bars, despite a system intent on stripping away their humanity. Annie Buckley is a long-time educator, artist, and facilitator. She has dedicated her career to bridging the gap between those who have access to the transformative power of art and those who do not. In the Art Inside series, you learn not only about what happens in arts programs behind prison walls, but also about her personal journey, gaining insights into her motivations, discoveries, and challenges. Through her personal narratives, she models being an active participant in transformation, as opposed to a spectator or benevolent presence, which is often the case when it comes to philanthropic interventions in prisons. She challenges us to think about artificial divides between teachers and students, about the transformative process as a continuous evolution shaped by mutual learning and growth. While Buckley enters these spaces as a teacher, she also emerges with deeper self-awareness, knowledge about others, and an understanding of the pervasive nature of mass incarceration. 

Buckley shares generously about the Prison Arts Collective (PAC) and its participants across California’s state prisons. The series sheds light on the lessons taught by PAC facilitators, participants’ reception, and the profound insights gained by everyone involved. It reveals the incarcerated participants’ deep engagement and vulnerability in a setting where such openness is dangerous, and it examines the ways that art offers them transformation, solace, and connection. While the series is inspiring, Buckley doesn’t allow readers to think that prison is an easy, soft place where programming flourishes. She makes clear that the success of the art program arises not from a benign environment but from the intense desire of participants for freedom—both literal and metaphorical—that art provides.

The Art Inside series is accompanied by the striking photography of Peter Merts, a prominent Arts-in-Corrections photographer. Merts has devoted his career to capturing the often unseen work of nonprofit organizations. His extensive work across California’s prison system uses photography to tell a compelling, frequently overlooked narrative: that behind bars are real people, not mere stereotypes or superpredators. His images capture raw emotions, movements, and expressions—all elements that are considered highly unusual, and in some cases dangerous, in the prison context.

I encourage you to explore the Art Inside series. Engage with it to challenge prevailing stereotypes and stigmas. Share in the laughter, tears, and hopes of Buckley, Merts, and the incarcerated members of our society. This series is not just a collection of stories and images; it’s also an invitation to see humanity where it is often ignored.


Image by Peter Merts, Prison Arts Collective at the California Institution for Men, 2017.

LARB Contributor

Ginny Emiko Oshiro is a Robert Wood Johnson National Health Policy Research Scholar, a Women’s Policy Institute and California State University, Fullerton Project Rebound alumna, a member of the Prison Arts Collective research team, and a policy advocate in the criminal legal reform landscape. She brings lived experience as a formerly incarcerated person and works closely with organizations serving currently and formerly incarcerated populations.


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