Can You Draw In Prison?

Drawing in prison has been credited by many former inmates as a life saver. Many inmates see artistic expression, more specifically drawing, as an escape from their current situation. Drawing is allowed at most prisons in the United States, some prisons even offer art classes for their inmates.

In this blog post, we will answer the following questions:

  • How do prisoners get art supplies?
  • Why is drawing so popular in prison?
  • Are there any restrictions on drawing?
  • What does an art program at a prison look like?

How do prisoners get art supplies?

Every prison in the United States has their own store, this store is called “the commissary”. The commissary is located within the correctional facilities’ walls and contains products ranging from snacks and treats, to dental floss. Inmates are able to purchase items from the commissary with money from family or friends, or any money they earn inside.

The majority of commissaries in prisons sell art supplies.

The art supplies that is available to inmates is composed of pencils, paper, pens, and in some cases, even mild paints.

Many artists behind bars opt to order specialized products from catalogs, these products include colored pencils, sketching pencils, sketch books, rulers, protractors and more. The catalogs simply offer the inmates more of a selection on products, letting them improve their skills.

It is important to note that not all prisoners share the same privileges. The products an inmate may purchase depends on the inmate’s offense and security/risk level. Inmates that are progressing with their rehabilitation work, along with displaying good behavior tend to have little/no restrictions when choosing what art supplies, they wish to order. On the other hand, prisoners that have either accrued more time while locked up or are deemed as a “high risk inmate” have signifyingly less freedom when deciding what products, they want.

Why is Drawing so Popular in Prison?

The reason inmates choose to take up drawing while serving their sentence varies; for some, it is a way to earn extra money, for others, it is therapeutic. Drawing while in prison have many different benefits.

Inmates that earn extra money through drawing are highly skilled on their block; these inmates make their money through other prisoners paying them to do an assortment of tasks with their talent. Some of these tasks include:

  • Drawing pictures of the inmates loved ones
  • Handwriting a letter
  • Illustrating tattoo design mockups
  • Create gifts for family members
  • Draw on birthday / holiday cards

Besides drawing for income, inmates seek refuge in expressing their thoughts and emotions through drawing. Prisoners that have been involved with violence find that, through art, they are able to relieve some of their mental suffering. Art and drawing go hand and hand with recovery and healing. It is not just inmates that have been around violence that can benefit from what drawing offers, anyone, inmate or not, that has gone through trauma may be able to reap the benefits from drawing.

Drawing has been proven to help with past traumas and reduce stress levels. It has also been found that drawing has made inmates more positive and optimistic. These benefits alone are able to make prison life more bearable.

Drawing is also very affordable. A “starter kit” that contains a sketchpad, pencils and erasers can be purchased for under $10.00 – a reasonable price for family and friends to spend.

Family and friends are likely to purchase the necessary supplies needed for an inmate to start drawing due to both the cost, and partially because they may hope to receive more letters and drawings in the future- it is almost viewed as an investment.

Lastly, drawing is respected in prison. A prisoner that is talented is typically held to a higher standard than other inmates. The benefits of being respected while in prison range from safety to friendships, but most importantly, it reduces the occurrence of violent assaults, riots, and other unfavorable events. Drawing is therapy.

Some inmates perform tattoos on others in prison for extra money. This activity did not make the list because in the majority of prisons researched, getting a tattoo behind bars is not warranted by the prison. Prison tattoos are quite common, even though no art catalog sells tattoo guns or supplies.

The act of one inmate giving another inmate a tattoo is as old as prisons are. Many get tattoos behind bars to symbolize any new affiliation they may have. New affiliation created in prison are not just gang affiliations, many inmates get tattoos relating to religion. It is common for an inmate to ask and pay for a tattoo artist to design them a cross.

Tattoo art is just another medium in which art and drawing can be expressed. For some, illustrating tattoos have proven to be widely successful. Many of the best tattoo artists got their start in prison; now that does not mean that is where they first started doing tattoos per say, but it is where most got their start with coloring, drawing, illustrating, and other mediums of artistic expression.

Are there any restrictions on drawing?

Restrictions placed on drawings are case by case. Any illustration that promotes violence or the endangerment of another inmate, guard, or civilian is for the most part banned. There are few exceptions to this rule, the largest being if it is an art assignment through the correctional facilities’ art program (we will discuss that in the next section), or if it permitted on the word of a psychiatrist or doctor.

The majority of restrictions on drawing have little to do with the artwork and more to do with the supplies. Supplies that contains blades or sharp edges are not allowed, nor are any highly toxic paints or markers. These restrictions are put into place to ensure the well-being of other inmates, to protect the facilities’ staff, and to prevent any attempts of self-harm.

These rules and regulations placed on art and art supplies are fairly common. In fact, the majority of detention center suppliers do not even offer such products to be bought, let alone be placed in their catalogs.

What does an Art Program at a Prison Look Like?

Prison art programs vary based on each facility, some offer instructional classes similar to what would be found on a college campus, while others simply function as a workshop for inmates to express themselves.

Instructional art programs consist of art projects from an instructor. These projects may include paintings, drawings, or sculpting, it all depends on the institution and the inmate’s security level. Some programs across the country even have textbooks for prisoners and assigned readings. The content of these books’ ranges from the history of art, to different styles and mediums.

Workshop art programs are less intense than instructional art programs because they are composed differently. Workshop art programs rarely have textbooks and have little instruction, it is more of a chance for inmates to express themselves in a controlled environment where they have access to a variety of materials and tools. Painting with watercolors is the most common medium for these workshops, but every prison is different, along with every inmate’s Privileges.


So far, this article has only touched on drawing and art within prisons, but there are a variety of other questions readers have pertaining to what inmates can and cannot due. Here is a few of those questions answered:

Can prisoners surf the web?

Short answer: No

Select inmates may be able to communicate with the outside via the internet but it is rare since most communication happens via letters or the famous “ICS” (Inmate Telephone System). The “ICS” is what inmates and visitors use to communicate when separated by a barrier. It is not allowed for an inmate to possess a cell phone or any form of wireless communication, nor is it allowed for inmates to use the internet unsupervised.

Are Prisoners Allowed to Watch Television?

Short answer: Yes

Prisoners that are in good standing with the institution and display good behavior are allowed to watch TV. Television is a privilege in prison, hence why any inmate who hopes to watch television must follow the rules and be on a track to rehabilitation.

Do Prisoners Pay for Food?

Short answer: No

If a prisoner wishes to purchase food from the commissary, they are forced to rely on friends and family for money to be deposited into their account so they can buy some. Prisoners may be able to pay for their own food from the commissary if they save money from working in prison (either working for the facility or earning money from other inmates). For the most part, however, inmates do not purchase their own food.

Thank You for reading! Do you think drawing is beneficial for inmates? Do you find drawing helpful? Let us know what you think by writing a comment below!


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