“The hardest prison to escape from is the mind.”
Inmates are stripped of their identity in prison. They are all given the same clothes and a specific number. By not calling them by their names, their identities are stripped from them. This is a systematic and precise killing of individuality. So how would one practice self-expression under such circumstances? Well, art is the most susceptible way of expression among prisoners allowing them to create a constructive and positive environment.
Why do inmates use art to express their pain and angst? Research has shown that people involved in prison art are more prone to return to homes and have lower recidivism rates. An article in The New York Times emphasized the therapeutic advantages of art for incarcerated individuals. The piece highlighted that creating art can help tackle the “Mortification Process,” which is the loss of dignity by prisoners. Through engaging in artistic activities, inmates can maintain their spirits and produce something positive that can benefit and bring joy to them and others. One such profound example of a prison artist is Donald Oliver Hooker, better known as C-Note, who is serving his 35 years sentence in America.
C-Note is an interdisciplinary American prisoner artist, poet, writer, painter, performing artist, and the King of Prison hip hop. C-Note is a prominent artist who depicts social issues through his art. C-Note got international attention when he was interviewed for an investigative report by KCOP-TV regarding the gangs in Los Angeles
C-Note’s artwork depicts the challenges and struggles faced by black women. Among his notable pieces are portrayals of the experiences exclusive to being a woman, such as Diana, which explores the journey of growing older, Tears of the Mothers, which delves into the difficulties of motherhood in gang-ridden and high-crime areas; and works highlighting incarcerated women. One such artwork is Life Without the Possibility of Parole, a painting and play created in 2016 that centers around women serving a sentence of LWOP in California. In 2017, he wrote Strange Fruit, an image that tackles elevated suicide rates among women in California’s prisons.
Some of his writings include The Untapped Potential of Prison Art, Neo Jim Crow: Black Art Movements and Its 21st Descendants, The Importance of Women in the Struggle: Emphasis on the Black Woman’s Voice, What if Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now Had Covered the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March, The Myth of Intersectionality to Women of Color, and Due process in the Era of Me Too.
Actor and writer
C-Note gained recognition as a prisoner artist for portraying Money Mike in the 10-minute Birth of a Salesman play. He not only acted in the play but also wrote it. The play served as the opening act for the highly praised Redemption in Our State of Blues, performed in December 2015 at the California State Prison, Los Angeles, and then again in March 2016. Esteemed politicians viewed the play, and it drew the attention of several professionals and activists.
Poetry and Paintoem
C-Note is an exceptional poet too. His poetry, such as Can’t Black Lives Matter Too?, American Negro: A Migrant Story, and The Criminalization of Our American Civilization, narrates the travails of black Americans. His paintoem Life Without the Possibility of Parole, Strange Fruit, and Today We Are Sisters depict the pain and pathos of inmate women who are serving a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). These works surround the higher-than-national average rates of suicide by women in California prisons.
C-Note’s work is eye-opening for authorities. All his paintings, poetry, and plays illustrate the injustice faced by black prisoners. His works have been exhibited, recited, performed, and sold from Alcatraz to Berlin. In September 2016, C-Note donated art for fundraising to the Partnership for Reentry Program (PREP) for their 12th annual prisoner art Exhibition, The Art of Incarcerated: Faith and Hope Beyond Prison Walls. He donated his first political work of visual art, Black August-Los Angeles, at the same event the following year. He has donated multiple works to save lives and has raised millions in public-private funding for criminal justice.
C-Note is currently serving a 35-year LWOP sentence over a bogus charge. According to a 1999 court briefing, he pulled out a knife in his defense when a homeless man followed him in the skid row area of Los Angeles.
Art enables inmates to be productive, although they are socially distracted and restricted from interaction. Recognized prisoner artists like Donald Oliver lead an example and serves as mentors for many. Despite being incarcerated, he has been featured in Prison Action News and California Prison Focus. He has been featured in People Magazine, Public Television-Los Angeles (KCET), ABC-Los Angeles (KABC), Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s Artbound, Darealprisonart Inside CDCR, KCET’s Departures, and San Francisco Bay View. In 2017, Google Search Engine Results Page (SERP) listed him as one of America’s and the world’s most prolific prison artists.