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When NFTs and Prison Art Collide

REBEKAH ROBINSON, HOST: There's a new project in the works that will allow people to own digital artworks made in prison. An online gallery in Brooklyn is turning those artworks into NFTs, which allows anyone to buy and sell the digitized drawings and paintings.

LINNEA ARDEN, HOST: Some of the money would go to the artists in prison. But victims' advocates want a say in deciding who profits off this. Reporter Clara-Sophia Daly has been following this project for months, and delves into some of the ethical issues this project raises.

CLARA-SOPHIA DALY, BYLINE: There is a new immersive digital art gallery in the works. It’s called A Night on The Yard With Stars, and features artworks made by twelve artists who are incarcerated at Ironwood State Prison, in California. The gallery is the brainchild of Damien Hodges, an author who writes novels based on his upbringing in the Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago. He's serving a 26 year sentence for armed robbery. And he says NFTs are an opportunity for giving people in prison like him the same sense of pride he feels from publishing his novels.

DAMIEN HODGES: I've been in prison out here in California for the past 12 years and I've seen an assortment of talent.

DALY: Hodges often saw people in prison with him making amazing art and throwing their work in the trash. And he realized NFTs could be a way for those people to get recognition and earn some money. Inmates at Ironwood make less than one cent an hour. Much of the money they earn goes back to the state or to victims in a process known as restitution. For Hodges who worked as a tutor, that leaves him with $9 a month.

HODGES: And so i'm like, wow this is a way that we can push the envelope as far as with the prison reform ordeal that's going on right now, you know what i'm saying, and it’s a way people can make some money, and be profitable.

DALY: Hodges has a friend he met through a prison pen pal initiative: Elise Swopes. She’s a digital artist based in Brooklyn. Swopes has done collaborations with brands like Adobe, Apple and Adidas. If you open Adobe Premiere on your computer, a digital self portrait she created comes up. She also sells NFTs and has made a lot of money doing so. Hodges suggested the artists and poets inside the prison could try selling their work as NTFS too. Swopes said yes and the idea for the NFT gallery was born. The artists would have an opportunity to earn some money and also learn about cryptocurrency, NFTs, and blockchain technology.

ELISE SWOPES: As of right now the plan is to sell art and get money for those artists.

DALY: But not everyone is happy about the plan for getting the money to the artists. Keith Franz is an attorney who’s worked as a victims advocate for the past 40 years. He’s also on the board of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

KEITH FRANZ: We believe that that victims have a right to be involved in every step of the process. So if someone is in jail, they should be notified, that there is some outside source of income that they are receiving, you know, then the courts can decide what if any, benefit the prisoner would be entitled to. And I think that's a sensible way to approach it.

DALY: And Franz says whether funds are earned and what’s done with the profits needs to be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis.

FRANZ: But if there is a civil judgment, for example, against the individual, then that those funds should be going to the victim to reduce that judgment. It shouldn't be a an opportunity for prisoners to earn considerable amounts.

DALY: Legally, incarcerated people are allowed to profit off the sale of art and books as long as the content is not related to the crime they’re convicted for. This legal precedent is based on a New York law enacted in 1977 after the serial killer known as the Son of Sam received high price offers for the rights to his story. But the law doesn’t stop incarcerated artists from selling works unrelated to their crime. And you can find art made in prison on Ebay and Etsy —- where paintings and drawings are on sale for anywhere from $20-50. But even Franz is in favor of people who are incarcerated making the most of the years they have inside – including the possibility of earning money.

FRANZ: We've seen instances where families are vehemently opposed anything that might benefit a criminal who's been convicted. But then as time goes on, their heart changes, and they feel sympathetic to the perpetrator and want to help them.

DALY: The artworks created for this gallery include poems written on pieces of paper, and tattoo-style drawings. Artists created the works in their cells and each piece was shipped out in a manila envelope through the prison mail system. Once outside the prison walls, the artwork will be scanned and then minted – a certifying process which gives each work a unique line of code. It will then be put inside an immersive gallery where viewers can digitally navigate around a 3D space to look at the art and potentially buy it. Funding the project is Isaac Wright, a world famous NFT photographer who goes by Drifter Shoots. He has a soft spot in his heart for incarcerated artists, because he was one of them. While photographing a skyscraper in Ohio, he was arrested for trespassing and held without bond. He has given $70,000 to fund the project.

ISAAC WRIGHT: I think that they should be allowed to do that just like anybody else should. You know, they make artwork. They're human beings too, you know. The prison system has clouded our minds to where we must look at incarcerated people as less than human. And that's not true. There's the most brilliant people you will ever meet when you're incarcerated, and they deserve to have a fair chance to, you know, especially because, you know, the prison system is working them for pennies on the dollar and they have nothing to show for it when they get out, hardly ever.

DALY: The night of the art show has come up with what organizers hope will be a fair solution: 50% of the profits will go to incarcerated artists, and 20% will be donated to organizations that support victims. It's not yet clear when the gallery will open.

Clara-Sophia Daly, Columbia Radio News.


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