“The Prison Machine” by Danny Killion (a.k.a. Paul Blackman)
Prisoners’ Art on Display at Keeney Cultural Center
WETHERSFIELD - Rachel Zilinsky walks through the Prison Arts Exhibit at the Keeney Cultural Center in Old Wethersfield as if she has never seen the inmate-crafted paintings and drawings that cover the walls of the back corner room.

       The Wethersfield Historical Society curator has taken this tour at least a few times, but she says it never ceases to amaze her. She’s had trouble choosing her favorite.

       “They’re all so very different,” Zilinsky said, stopping next to an image of two skyscrapers back dropping a town and municipal buildings titled “Welcome to The City of Labroia.”

       “No matter what I see, it changes every time. This one I’ve looked at three times and I see something different every time.”

       There’s “Silence…Repent,” the exhibit’s solemn cover image by Vinny Nardone of a row of prison cots in what looks like a futuristic space facility. Then there’s Danny Killion, a.k.a. Paul Blackman. His piece, “The Prison Machine”, a character attached to a complicated web of computer wiring, looks like something that can pass for a Pink Floyd album cover.

       “All of these pictures are kind of gut-wrenching,” Zilinsky said.

       And we haven’t even gotten over the other side of the room’s middle wall, where the inmate letters--to family members, friends, and/or the world at large--are displayed.

       She points to a two-page note written by one inmate, a sex offender incarcerated for raping a 15-year-old boy.

       “He writes about wanting parole,” Zilinsky said. “They gave you a window into a perspective you didn’t have before. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s beautiful art and it’s raw emotion.”

       The Prison Arts Exhibit is put on by Community Partners in Action (CPA), a nonprofit focused on prisoner rehabilitation. It’s launched at a time when the Historical Society is offering a little bit of prison insight of its own in the form of an exhibit and walking tour chronicling the 140 years a state prison stood in Old Wethersfield.

       “We’re just glad to provide [CPA] a space,” Zilinsky said. “This needs to be seen.”

       And while Keeney Cultural Center visitors will be able to look into the window Zilinsky was talking about, for those looking out, the benefit is the therapeutic opportunity to speak out.

       “Being able to draw here is one of only a few things that keep me going,” writes Diablo biker George “Bing” Dyson in a letter that hangs below an image of skulls, spider webs and a motorcycle. “It’s mine and most of the other inmates’ only escape for a while.”

       Not too far down the wall is a letter written by Wade Roseboro. It describes that the inmates are looking to escape in any way that they can.

       “Fifteen hundred inmates and still alone,” Roseboro writes. “Seven, six, nine lockup is all I hear as the rent-a-cop yells ‘count time, gentlemen,’ doors slammin. I’m still not doing time--time is doing me.”

       But there’s also stories of hope. Vicki Parker is looking at an impending release. In her letter, she writes that she has not been “clean” since she was five.

       “At that age I was introduced to alcohol,” Parker writes. “I drank for 42 years. During that time I did drugs, as well.”

       But now, she’s looking to start over.

       “I’m looking forward to my future,” Parker writes. “My plans are to volunteer with groups like NA and AA. My hope is that my service will put back into society some of what I took out over the years.”

       Initiated in 1978, the objectives of the Prison Arts Program was twofold--to provide inmates with a productive outlet while facilitating reintegration, said Program Manager Jeff Greene.

       “Art is, and always has been, one of the most prevalent activities in any prison system,” Greene wrote in an email. “Taking advantage of this, the Prison Arts Program encourages artists to look beyond the traditional portraiture, tattoo patterns, copying or generic landscapes that are so common in prison. Artists are asked to create work that only exists because they exist " artwork that is unique, emotive, evolving, thoughtful and thought provoking. While advocating for the value of rigorous, long-term endeavors, the program promotes a change in direction, attitude, possibility, work ethic and empathy for all of those living and working in the state’s prisons. The results are often extraordinary.”

       Visitors can see the exhibit between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. There is no charge for admission.