Through his art, a former prisoner diagnoses the systemic sickness of Florida’s penitentiaries

In 2007, Haitian-American artist Moliere Dimanche was sentenced to 10 years in Florida state prisons, where he ended up serving eight-and-a-half years.

While imprisoned, he made art – a series of pencil drawings on the back of stray sheets of paper – to document the brutality of his time spent behind bars, much of it in isolation.

In 2017, I was introduced to Dimanche, one of the dozens of currently and formerly incarcerated people I have interviewed over the past several years for my forthcoming book on visual art in the era of mass incarceration.

Often using state-issued material or contraband, imprisoned artists use a myriad of genres and styles to create political collages, portraits of other imprisoned people and mixed-media works that comment on abuse, racism and the exploitation of prison labor.

In Dimanche’s story, I see the stories of thousands of others in U.S. prisons who are using art and creativity to shine a light on their experiences and advocate for systemic change.

A malignant system

Florida prisons, in particular, have become notorious for their pervasive culture of neglect and abuse.

In 2016, investigative reporter Eyal Press wrote about the torture and routine abuse that took place in the mental health units of Florida’s prisons.

Central to Press’ account was the case of Darren Rainey, an incarcerated man with a history of schizophrenia who was scalded to death when prison officers forced him into a shower of boiling hot water.

According to The Miami Herald, at least 145 people have died in state penal facilities so far this year, making Florida’s prisons among the deadliest in the country.

In response, many inside have resisted or continue to resist the inhumane treatment and prison conditions. Earlier this year, prison laborers in Florida organized a strike to protest unpaid labor and brutal working conditions. (Many of the participants were punished with solitary confinement.)

In August, incarcerated people in Florida joined others across the country in a nationwide prison strike. Their demands include being paid prevailing state wages for their labor, reforms that would allow prisoners to file grievances when their rights are violated, and a reinstatement of Pell grants in all U.S. states and territories.

While these strikes can certainly bring attention to dire prison conditions, the stories of incarcerated people can also emerge in creative and clandestine ways – in drawings, photographs, paintings, letters and poetry.

Incarcerated activists like Kevin “Rashid” Johnson – whose Guardian essay denouncing prison labor as “modern slavery” went viral in August – also use art to communicate with the public.

‘Control Unit Torture,’ a 2006 drawing by Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson, who has been held in solitary confinement since 1994. Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson
Because prisons are institutions of constant surveillance and censorship, art can serve as a crucial conduit for self-expression and as a tool for survival – a way to earn money, document prison conditions and stay connected with the outside world.

Drawing to survive

After Moliere Dimanche was sentenced, his family was unable to financially support him. From the costs of phone calls to commissary items to the expenses of visits to see imprisoned relatives, prisons can be a financial drain for families already struggling to get by.

Dimanche soon realized that he could use art as currency for toiletries, clothing, cigarettes, writing utensils and coffee. Other incarcerated men – and even some prison staff – commissioned him to make portraits, drawings and greeting cards that they would then give to their loved ones. He also designed tattoos and fashioned a tattoo gun and ink from prison supplies.

Dimanche ultimately created a series of fantastical, highly symbolic, allegorical drawings during his time in solitary confinement. They are bold, cartoonish representations. Filled with dark humor, they provide a sustained lens into the abuses inside Florida’s prison system.

Moliere Dimanche realized that his drawings could accomplish much good: He could take care of basic needs, document his experience in prison and relay messages to the outside world. Moliere Dimanche, Author provided
While art gave him a way to provide for his basic needs and acted as an outlet for creative expression, Dimanche also became an expert of the state’s penal system and how it stifles the rights of the imprisoned. Early into his sentencing, he began to study law and to advocate for himself and others.

He became a writ writer – a jailhouse lawyer – filing grievances and writing briefs on behalf of fellow prisoners and himself.

But he believes his legal advocacy only subjected him to more punishment and surveillance. He was held in solitary confinement for much of his sentence.

Even in isolation, he continued his writ writing and making art.