Should We Allow Prisoners to Profit From Their Works of Art?

It’s an issue we must discuss, this controversial question of what the rights of prisoners should be; where the line should be drawn. I’m not exactly sure where I stand concerning the selling of art by and for serial killers. But there’s an organization, called The Fortune Society, which makes it possible for the incarcerated to profit, through self-created notoriety, with self-created artwork.

Founded in 1967 and based in New York City, The Fortune Society is one of the preeminent ex-prisoner service and advocacy organizations in the country. Its mission is to help former prisoners and those facing prison time by providing the foundation from which new lives can be launched, and to educate the larger community on key issues related to criminal justice and the underlying causes of crime. Funding for the not-for-profit organization comes through private contributions and government grants.

They are a “guilty party” to this controversy, the enablers, and this is a typical response to the auction:

An online auction of artwork by a serial sex killer triggered outrage in Massachusetts on Tuesday where lawmakers proposed to block criminals from profiting on what they called “murderabilia,” setting off a debate on free speech rights of prisoners.

A colored pencil sketch of Jesus Christ kneeling in a desert by Alfred Gaynor, a serial killer serving four life sentences for sodomizing and choking to death four women, went on sale on Tuesday on a Web site operated by a prisoner advocacy group.

It was one of nearly 300 artworks offered for auction through December 18 on The Fortune Society’s Web site. If sold, nearly all proceeds from the work entitled, “A Righteous Man’s Reward,” will go to Gaynor, the group said.

The article goes on to reveal that legislation has been submitted by Rep. Peter Koutoujian, a Democrat, that would provide a variation of the “Son of Sam” law, since Massachusetts is one of the few states not to have such a law in one form or another. The “Son of Sam” law requires convicted criminals to surrender profits from books and movies or other deals based on their stories to victims or the state.

America’s first such law was passed in New York after “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz was offered big money for his story. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that law in 1991 but it was retooled and put back on the books in 1992.

There are more than 30 states with such laws that have been unchallenged, mainly because they are so seldomly invoked.

The Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts’ highest court, said in 2002 that an earlier version of the law violated free speech provisions in the state and federal constitutions. Koutoujian, a former prosecutor, says the auction underlines the need for the law.

His description of his submission:

This is a piece with Jesus praying for all men and women to one day come to him in prayer so that one day we could all truly be brothers and sisters in heaven.

(What kind of rip-off is this “heaven” place that would accept such creeps as Gaynor?)


After seeing “A Righteous Man’s Reward” by Gaynor, I’m tempted to say he deserves not a penny: It’s a piece that appears to have been crafted by a child. Yet it’s has the highest bid so far of $250.00 so maybe I’m no art critic.

Some really impressive pieces of art, sculpture and “baubles” are visible at The Fortune Society site, and considering ability alone, some of the artists deserve reward for their efforts and abilities. Had some not been incarcerated, their works would surely be in an upscale art gallery or two.

Consider, too, that some of these artist are seriously challenged for supplies necessary to create their pieces.
Artist Ramiro Gonzalez says:

I’m here in the SHU in Pelican Bay Prison and we’re not allowed to have colored pencils, so everything we draw is with a ball point pen and everything else we have to be creative. With this piece, I used coffee for the color brown and the other colors on the bear. I used Skittles – wet them a little bit to extract the color – and then paint the drawing. I use my plastic state-issued spoon to scrape color off old magazines and TV Guides and then rub the color dust into the drawing until it takes. As you can see, we make do around here with what is available.”

Others use soft drink cans, folded paper, plastic straws, soap, coffee cups, dental floss and other abstract materials. It’s each state’s choice how many or how few art supplies the inmates have access to: Some states are generous, other’s extremely restrictive.

Constitutional right to free speech is the issue here, not whether any of these guys should be considered artistically gifted.

I believe they should have the same allowances regarding free speech as anyone outside of a prison, but I cringe to realize Gaynor’s work is going to sell for hundreds of dollars. That, to me, is a crime!

Update: During the time I took to write this, Gaynor’s piece was purchased by “potsie” for $250.00.


15 thoughts on “Should We Allow Prisoners to Profit From Their Works of Art?

  1. I don’t typically give blind endorsements, and this is something I might regret saying later, but as far as I’m concerned this is good progress. However, to say it goes far in preventing further crime is questionable. I see no reason not to let them craft works and provide for themselves, but I don’t think they should profit personally from it. I’d say, rather, the money ought to be given to advocacy groups (until a better solution comes along). Prisoners should be brought to understand implicitly that the cause for doing this sort of work is self-understanding, and I think putting profits to the end of understanding crime and closing the door on it is putting “the right foot forward”.

  2. The only art that these sick fuckers should be allowed to profit from would be if they severed their penises and put them in a jar and entitled the piece “apology”

    Fuck them.

    They are not human and don’t deserve to draw breath.

  3. Wow GoodKitty… I personally am at odds with convicts receiving money for works ( art, books, movies, etc.). But some people who are incarcerated will come out, they need to have some sort of skill with which to feed and clothe themselves as opposed to returning to the crimes that put them in the pokey in the first place. On the other hand I am paying for them to be in the pokey, I see nothing wrong with the cash flow help pay for their keep. Not to mention paying restitution to the families that they have hurt.

  4. Yeah, I can relate. I’m hoping to settle into one opinion or another but the best I can come up with now is that maybe murderers should wait until they get out to try to sell their art.

    GoodKitty, you may have thought that all the artists represented have raped and murdered. I’m pretty sure that many of them are in jail for other crimes instead.

    Have any of you noticed the neck on Jesus in Gaynor’s piece? It figures that someone who chokes people to death for entertainment would put prominent necks on their cartoon characters.

    What he said about his drawing reminded me of another confusion I have: Why would Jesus need to pray to God anyway? Isn’t he God?

  5. Tricky, I think. I have friends(or well my dad has friends) who work in the local prison here.

    GoodKitty: I think it’s like Brock said. Not all these artists are in prison for rape and murder.

    In fact, in the prison here, we have quite a few artists who are usually featured in the local art exhibit during Febury, and many of them are in for petty crimes and thieft. And some of them are very talanted artists.

    But it is hard to decide rather it’s a good thing or not, if the artist is a murderer or rapiest. I can understand GoodKitty’s reaction. Possibly more so, as I myself am a rape victim. It’s hard to forgive such crimes sometimes. It was also hard when the man who raped me, wanted to see me to apologize. And strangley confusing when I realized he was being extremely sincere in his apology. I finally learned to give that forgivenness and have learned since that upon his release, he has done much charity work for the local women’s shelter. I suppose he was one of those rare cases.

    As for being paid for their art…again, I think it depends on the crime and nature of the person. Perhaps as arc said, the money should be given to a charity or such?

  6. Tough.  Should serial killers be allowed to cash in on their notoriety?  No.
    Should drug dealers be encouraged to develop skills that will help keep them out of jail?  Yes.

    In-between cases? Hmmm…  No easy answers here.

    PinkSands- very touching story.  There’s hope for us humans after all.

  7. I believe art benefits humanity at large more than it does the artist.  If historians found that Van Gogh was actually a seriel killer, it would only rob society to destroy his paintings.  Though there is really no way to make right some wrongs, we shouldn’t remove the value that imprissioned artists might give to culture.  That painting of Jesus is lame, but it might have value to civilization 200 or 2000 years from now.

    Additionally, the outlet could make some violent criminals less likely to be aggressive to other inmates and workers.  So long as they can do their works in their limited spaces, I think they should be allowed to go for it.  Indeed, they should be allowed modest supplies with which to pursue art.

    At the least, the criminals should be able to recover the cost of supplies.  Beyond that, I am fine with the proceeds going to the facility, the state, victims, or advocacy groups.

  8. Tangent – Does the USA have an equivalent of the UK’s “Rehabilitation of Offenders” Act? Essentially this piece of legislation allows after a period of time without any convictions, for a convicted criminal to not have to declare a previous conviction when applying for employment. The length of time depends on the severity of the punishment given for the original offence, and ranges from 6 months to 10 years. The Act doesn’t apply for certain sensitive areas/occupations.

    Anyone know?

  9. djbrianuk-
    I took a look and no such law exists in the U.S. if you are convicted of a crime it stays on you like an albatross, unless you are 17 and under, and even those records can be brought up if you commit a similiar crime later on. At least as far as my search went…

  10. Thanks Finny – the point I’m coming to is the purpose of the justice system – jail and other sanctions for offences.

    I can identify four main things that are/should/could be the focus.

    1 – Punishment of Offenders
    2 – Protection of Society
    3 – Restitution to Victims
    4 – Rehabilitation of Offenders

    It’s a question of priorities – which of these is the most important? Which can be disregarded? What are the priorities?

    It’s a fact that USA sentencing tends to be much harsher than UK for similar offences. I pretty much believe that the average US citizen would rank the priorities of the system 1-4 as above, with rehabilitation of offenders very low on the priority list. What are the employment prospects for ex-cons in the US? If they’re not given any alternatives, it’s pretty much a sure bet that they’ll return to a life of crime on release which helps no-one. Society doesn’t benefit, their past (and most certainly their future) victims don’t benefit and neither do the ex-cons. Everyone loses. I’m not saying that all criminals can go straight, there are some who will never become productive members of society, but if none of them ever have the chance, then we’ll never know.

  11. Everyone loses.

    Not everyone, djbrianuk.  The architects who design the prisons, the contracters who build them, the employees of the penal system- they all profit from crime.  Do you want all these fine people to lose their jobs?

  12. “Do you want all these fine people to lose their jobs? ”
    I think the obvious answer to that question is yes. People have lost their jobs for far less noble actions. The contractors can go back to fixing my roof, the guards can go back to being security guards at hospitals, and if you’ve seen some of the prisons around my neck of the woods… well maybe architecture really wasn’t their ‘calling’.

  13. I don’t know…

    If a convict is about running a scam, well, I can see allot of the points here. But what about guys like the late Eddie Bunker who wrote and acted in “Straight Time” with Dustin Hoffman, or further contributed to the writing of and acting in “Reservoir Dogs,” or acted with Jon Voight in “Runaway Train” a prison story inspired by Akira Kurosawa.

    This was a guy who took the prestige and ‘glam’
    out of hard state prison time. He wrote a book (I can’t recall the title) that chronicled his life of crime and the pain it caused him. Like Charles Bukowski, that was why he was so embraced by the entertainment world. His was a message that prison and crime isn’t cool, it’s fucked.

    Or let’s further use the example of a drug dealer and lifelong crack addict who somehow beat his addiction. Should he be barred from taking up the vocation of addiction recovery counseling because it would appear that he is profitting from previous crimes?

    These aren’t easy questions to answer and in my opinion should be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

  14. Thank you Brock for breathing new life into this subject for me – something I think otherwise I might have dismissed as a “non-issue” for many years given the level of tolerance I have for criminals – especially violent ones.

    Masculiste makes some superb and insightful points very eloquently.

    Kudos deserved for both of them.

    Although I understand GoodKitty’s nihilistic attitude I think that we should be looking at crime from a constructive standpoint – If we’re going to handle crime with incarceration at all (as opposed to just having a big ole crim bonfire every couple of months and raking the ashes into a landfill) then there must be more productive ways to spend our money when it comes to paying for their time in “pokey” as Finny described it.

    DJbrianUK seems to have things pinned down more to my liking.

    It is about the results – is incarceration successful in those four categories? – punishment of offenders, restitution to victims, protection of society, rehabilitation of offenders. I’d perhaps add a fifth – Deterrent to potential criminals.

    Should not the ultimate aim of any criminal justice system should be to reduce the negative impact of crime on law-abiding society?

    That’s my view.



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