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October 10, 2017 10:07 PM

The Prison Artists

More than 700 inmates are behind bars in the high-medium security portion of the South Dakota State Penitentiary and most of them will be given the chance some day to rejoin society.

Before they come back to your neighborhoods, the prison tries to prepare the convicted criminals through a variety of programs. 

On the first and third Thursdays of the month at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, inmate James Andrews shows up early for drawing class. 

"I haven't really found my niche," Andrews said. 

But the 42 year old is eager to learn and won't be leaving the prison in Sioux Falls anytime soon. 

"Anybody that sat down for a while would surprise themselves if they had the time. Of course here, we have plenty of that," Andrews said. 

Convicted of first-degree robbery out of Jones County in 2003, Andrews isn't eligible for parole until 2033. Finding a hobby to fill the lonely hours behind bars is a high priority. 

"I can focus on maybe drawing and it will take me out of that. It's a good way to express my frustration. An outlet I didn't have previously," Andrews said.

"With that time, they actually have an advantage over students in a regular university or any school," teacher Allan Fisher said. 

In addition to learning a new skill, the art class is attracting dozens of followers because of its instructor; former Dakota State professor and local artist Allan Fisher. 

"I love it. I'm a volunteer and I've been volunteering for five years but they couldn't pay me enough to do this," Fisher said. 

After 10 years in Madison, Fisher retired and has been working with the Alternatives To Violence Program here at the penitentiary. To his surprise, he's even run into a few of his former college apprentices. 
Fisher: There's actually a few that I had as students that are here now. 

Holsen: How does that make you feel?

Fisher: Kind of strange. 
What's not strange is his passion for helping these prisoners become better people through art. 

"There's been a turnaround here at the penitentiary. It's becoming a lot more positive. I think that's great," Fisher said. 

"You know a lot of these guys are defined by why they're here," Cultural Activities Program Manager Tammy Mertens-Jones said.

While these men are criminals being punished for very serious mistakes... 

"There's some that won't be here forever and there's some that will never leave," Mertens-Jones said. 

Cultural Activities Program Manager Tammy Mertens-Jones says it's important to find outlets and options for the inmates. 
"There's so much more to them and this is just one way that they can kind of show that," Mertens-Jones said. "And there's some talent in here. I've seen some amazing artwork."

Some of the art that gets worked on in this room right next to me doesn't stay here. It goes to the Aberdeen Inmate Art Show where it goes on display. The show features pieces from inmates across South Dakota. 

If those pieces sell, that money can help the inmates pay off certain fees. 

"We can pay our restitutions. We can pay our debts to society and then we can become a valuable member again," Andrews said.

That's what's important to Andrews. He says the main issues facing prisoners are addiction, mental illness, education and poverty. If there isn't an attempt to fix that here, those problems will persist. 

"You know a lot of guys solve things with violence or any type of thing you can imagine with frustration or lack of purpose. That's another thing that's big in here, when you feel worthless," Andrews said. 

An aspiring painter and member of the South Dakota State Poetry Society, Andrews doesn't want to always be known for his mistakes.  

"If we're not developing as humans, when we get back into society, we'll have those same problems, but probably worse," Andrews said. 

Inmates taking part in the drawing class pay for their own supplies. The program is also being expanded to the most dangerous inmates in maximum security at the Jameson Annex. 

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