Q&A: Artist, educator, activist Sarah Ross on her passion for social justice and her fight for incarcerated people

Sarah Ross stands in front of a mural designed by incarcerated students outside the DuSable Museum Roundhouse. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio)

By Yue Li
Medill Reports

In 2006, Sarah Ross, then a part-time art history teacher at a central Illinois prison, learned more about segregation and imprisonment firsthand through her interactions with her students.

“I had read things like, ‘The prisons are full of Black and brown people.’ It was so racist and so prejudiced,” Ross said. “But (when I) went into prison, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s absolutely true.’”

Ross said she saw how urban spaces are segregated based on class and race and how the isolated design of prisons reflects inequalities. Five years later, she co-founded the Prison + Community Arts/Education Project, which teaches college courses in prisons and arranges for artists, writers and scholars to collaborate with incarcerated people through exhibitions, mural paintings and publications.

This summer, a gallery and community space for families of incarcerated artists that Ross has been preparing for over two years is expected to open on Chicago’s West Side.

Medill Reports spoke with Ross about her experiences working with imprisoned people, her visions for the city’s criminal legal system and her ideas for improving this city.

This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.


Why do you want to use art to shine a light on incarceration and inequity?

Several years ago, (Chicago artist and musician) Damon Locks and I did a project working with incarcerated artists called “The Long Term.” It was about long-term sentencing policies because all these students whom we worked with, for the last several years, had really long prison sentences (60, 70 and 80 years). It was very hard to understand why somebody with a certain crime on their record was different from the other person and why one person had a sentence of ineligible — meaning they would never get out of prison — and another person had 40 or 20 years. If you were to read policy about sentencing, it’s boring. Most people don’t read it. There are all these fine details. But it’s those details that lock up thousands of people. But through art, making and doing a project with these folks, there was storytelling. You can ask them stories. You can access and understand or get to understand these policies in a whole different way. For issues of incarceration, the law is a very dense language that many don’t speak. So, art can be a way to make translations.


Over 10 years ago, you co-founded the Prison + Neighborhood Art/Education Project. How do you see its contributions to Chicago’s criminal legal system?

There’s a way to show the artwork and poetry of incarcerated people in the Chicago world. We have murals around the city, and their work has been published in awesome exhibitions and art spaces like the Hyde Park Art Center and the DuSable Black History Museum. On the other part, I really wanted other artists, educators, scholars and thinkers to work with folks inside. How can we make relationships between inside and outside people (of the prison) so that we’re learning from each other — so that there’s wider support and solidarity with folks who are incarcerated? That intended effect actually worked because recently, there was a clemency hearing for some of our students, and many people came out and supported these people (some of the students) to get clemency. It’s an example of when we try to pierce through the wall of the prison. There’s nothing in the criminal code that says that people should be isolated from their communities and their families that (are) cut off. But that’s what it does, and it has all these terrible effects. It’s hard for people to come back into society and have community. They need that desperately.


What could the art by the incarcerated offer the city of Chicago and society?

It often offers a view of policies at work. We did a mural about a policy called truth in sentencing. We painted it with community members and lots of formerly incarcerated people. Many people would walk by as we were installing it and say, “Oh, yeah, I know what that law is!” “Oh, yeah, my brother’s locked up because of that law!” If the statistics are that one in 99 people in the United States has been to prison or has experienced incarceration, then that means a lot of people know people who have been locked up. There’s so little imagery or stories around us that talk about those people.


How would you assess the progress the city of Chicago has made on prison and incarceration?

A lot of changes or ideas for change are from people and organizations that fight, push and make changes happen. Change in the city of Chicago has been slow over the last decade. But there have been some political changes that are really impacting people’s lives in good ways. There are people who are getting out of prison through clemency. The SAFE-T Act just passed, making a bond illegal so that people don’t sit in jail while they’re waiting for trial. It made me think of a chapter in a book by Angela Davis which says freedom is a constant struggle. I don’t expect change to happen tomorrow, and I don’t think anybody does. We all know that once you get one thing done, there will be another thing waiting that needs to be changed. Access, rights and equality always have to be expanded.


How do you think your artistic practices could help fix those issues? What role do you want your artwork to play in addressing them?

Art making for me is making sure that people tell their own stories and that the people who are impacted by things that are happening get a chance to talk and come up with solutions. The people who experience segregation want to be heard. (Art) is just another language. It’s a visual language. It’s a double language that could be heard in a different way.


What’s the hope you have for Chicago to become a better city?

We need to invest in people who invest in communities. Give them the support they need to go to school. Give them the support they need to find jobs. Give them the support they need to have child care. I was driving down Chicago Avenue today. There are tons of paintings around there. You can have all that stuff to beautify the neighborhood. But if people still can’t afford to eat, (if) people still can’t get mental health services, then there are still serious problems.


Yue Li is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn