By Gordon Williams

Edited by Nancy Waddell

Damage from the three hurricanes that struck the U.S. and possessions last August and September is put at $265 billion dollars by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Add billions more just from the California wildfires, and the damage caused by disasters last year was staggering.


Equally staggering is how often the American Red Cross responds to home fires and weather incidents that leave victims all across the country in need of emergency assistance on a daily basis.


Now the Red Cross is about to get a welcome financial assist from a most unlikely source — inmates in Washington state prisons. More than 200 art pieces — made and donated by more than 120 inmates from prisons across the state — will be auctioned off this week. Title of the auction is “Unguarded: Incarcerated Artists Art Auction for Hurricane Relief.”

 Unguarded ArtThe auction will be held Friday, February 16 from 6 to 8:30 pm at the Central campus of Bates Technical College at 2320 South 19th Street in Tacoma, WA. Admission is free, and money raised by the auction will go to the Red Cross for hurricane relief. 


Attend the event! Click HERE to register.

Prison art as a collectible art form dates back at least to the 1930s. An article in Texas Monthly magazine focuses on “paños” — small swatches of cloth torn from sheets and pillowcases, and drawn on by Hispanic Inmates  in southwestern prisons. They caught the eye of collectors. Now, says the magazine, “paños hang in New York museums and are snapped up by worldly collectors.”


Buyers at the Tacoma auction will be able to bid on a wide variety of art forms — all made from materials salvaged by prisoners or purchased with their own money from prison commissaries. There will be oil and acrylic paintings, welded art made from discarded materials, knitted Afghan blankets, fine pencil drawings, beadwork, handmade Native American drums, and more.


The event is being organized by Numbers to Names — a group that says its goal is to build bridges between prison inmates and the outside world. But the idea for an auction of inmate art to support hurricane relief actually originated with a pair of prisoners at the state’s Cedar Creek Corrections Center at Littlerock, WA. 


Kim Beckham, coordinator of the community partnership program at Cedar Creek, says that inmates had watched on TVs in prison day rooms as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck in fast succession. “One of the inmates had the idea of offering some sort of aid to hurricane victims,” she says. “The other suggested an art sale, so collectively the idea was born.”


Beckham loved the idea so much that she extended it to inmates at other prisons. “She even had inmates assist in writing the project proposal for DOC leadership staff,” says Rachel Friederich, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC).


The way Beckham sees the auction, “We’re shining a light on the fact that the people who are incarcerated want to give back.”  The DOC’s Friederich says inmates know that creating art for the auction won’t have any impact on their sentences. Even so, she says prison officials find that inmates are glad to have an altruistic impact, even if it is from behind bars. Prison officials say that letting inmates work on such recreational activities as artwork can reduce disciplinary problems and stress-related injuries. Prisoners must use their own money to pay for art supplies.  


The view that those in prison still want to help is confirmed by James Pyles, an inmate at the Larch Correction Center at Yacolt, WA. Writing to support the initiative, Pyles said, “We who are confined are not unaware of the world outside prison. And like people on the other side of the prison’s fences, we are touched by the images we see. But unlike those outside of prison walls, we can’t pick up a phone and give to our favorite charity or volunteer with a local outreach group.”


The Lakewood Arts Commission of Lakewood, WA is loaning equipment to display the artwork. The staff of Washington State Correctional Industries — which runs work training programs in prisons — collected and inventoried each piece of art and is transporting the art to the Bates campus.


If you can’t attend the auction but still want to contribute to hurricane relief, you can donate directly to the Red Cross. Go to to see how. Friederich of the DOC says that state employees can make payroll contributions through the Washington State Combined Fund Drive. 

Let us know you’re coming! Click HERE for more event information.

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