Taipei Prison (臺北監獄) could easily be mistaken for a school.
Its grounds are laid out like a junior-high school campus, complete with an athletic field, library and kitchen. There are classrooms, and Ah-gong (阿貢) — not his full name — is in one labeled “Sand Painting.”
Ah-gong, from Indonesia, is among a growing cohort of inmates who successfully tested into one of the prison’s art classes. For eight hours a day, he makes sand paintings that retail at the Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) online store for NT$700 to NT$7,000, depending on size and complexity. Ah-gong’s latest piece — a black train releasing a trail of smoke — is large but inexpensive, since he is still a beginner.
You may not be able to tell. He has just brushed colored sand on to a small section of adhesive. Using a spoon, he is tapping off excess granules with an expert manner, as if playing the tiniest timpani in the world.
“This is quite delicate work,” he says in Mandarin. “You cannot turn on the fan because then the sand will blow everywhere.”
At the other end of the prison, inmates are in what the warden calls a study hall.
As in any study hall, there is a guy who’s studying, a guy who’s doodling and one who is about to fall asleep.
“Three days a week, we have classes with our two teachers. Monday is all free time,” says an inmate surnamed Chen (陳, full name withheld to protect his identity).
He’s holding up a blue porcelain object that looks like a cross between a crystal ball and a Faberge egg. There are goldfish painted over the surface, each with a baker’s dozen of shimmering scales. “This took two months to make. Every scale is created with filigree metalwork,” he says of his creation. “I wanted the fish to be 3D, but not protuberant.”
Chen, who studies sculpting at Taipei Prison, is one of the facility’s most expert craftsmen. The goldfish egg retails for NT$20,000.
“We often bring in professional teachers,” said Kao Chien-yun (高千雲), a section chief at the MOJ’s Agency of Corrections. “But it takes a long time for a student to master a craft. That’s why the most beautiful pieces are made by the gravest offenders.”
From Food prep to the arts
Since 2006, the corrections agency has been developing its “One Prison, One Specialty” (一監所一特色) industrial program, which launched with the goal of teaching prisoners career skills like food preparation.
But these days, the agency is focused on growing its arts program, which has proven to be a near-perfect match for the prison system, says Kao.
For one thing, lacquer ware and other artwork bring in revenue, largely through word-of-mouth marketing. Profits support inmate upkeep and individual allowances for prisoners, he says.
The program also keeps prisoners occupied in a way that can be personally rewarding. “[Art] seems to be interesting to them, and if they learn the craft well, it cannot be taken away,” he said.
Once mastered, art may allow inmates to drastically better their circumstances after release from prison.
According to the MOJ, one former inmate surnamed Lan (藍) had studied at a lantern-making workshop during his eight-year sentence. Unlike many ex-convicts who find themselves in menial jobs after release, Lan became a staffer at the Chinese Artistic Lantern Association (中華花燈藝術學會), where he is now a creative director.
Another inmate surnamed Tsai (蔡) studied oil painting and went on to found an exterior painting firm called Sinte (信泰油漆工程) after release. Sinte is a major partner of the Formosa Plastics Group, and one of the few companies that has stated publicly that it is willing to hire former inmates.
As its latest experiment, the Agency of Corrections is reshaping the arts program to allow prisoners to interact with the public.
In 2011 and last year, the agency held public art exhibitions featuring works from prisoners in Taiwan and China.
The agency has also been adding performance arts courses to the catalog — classes like taiko drumming and choral singing. Earlier this month, a newly formed men’s chorus, starring the top-ranked singers at 13 prisons across Taiwan, put on their first public concert at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall.
“Logistically this was very difficult. We needed hundreds of security guards and roll calls on the bus and off the bus,” says Kao.
“But it was good for the prisoners. I also think it was touching for the audience. Some were family members who didn’t know their relative could sing.”
For more information about prisoner-made goods, visit www.shop.moj.gov.tw.