Local resident Carmita Kelley goes to a lot of local and regional festivals, setting up and selling artwork. It's not her own, though. She manages the prison art program at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, which gives her the opportunity to put the artwork of inmates in unlikely places.
Employees of the Delaware Department of Correction, especially those who deal directly with inmates, have to be tough. That's what long-time employee Carmita Kelley says. But, there's also room for kindness and compassion. Kelley says that, too.
She doesn't have to say it, though. The easy smile of her sunny disposition—she has a joke or a funny comment for nearly every person she comes in contact with—betrays any hard exterior that more than a decade of work in the prison system could have caused.
Anyone who has been to a craft fair, an art show or a holiday bazaar in Kent County has likely been on the receiving end of her effervescent personality as well. As the Correctional Arts Program Coordinator, she tries to attend as many shows as she can, selling the artwork of her participants and answering questions about the program. Most recently, she was at the Smyrna Craft Beer, Wine and Food Festival.
When she sets up the work, people start making their way over to it, checking out the intricacy of the leaves in the landscapes, the laugh lines in the eyes of a portrait or even the bizarre cartoonish imaginings of others. The question she hears first is usually some version of "did you paint all of this?" It's the perfect conversation starter for Kelley, who launches into an explanation of the program.
"People are usually in awe of what they see," Kelley said of the people she encounters when she "exhibits" the work in the program. "Most people will immediately tell you what a shame it is to have the kind of talent it takes to produce this work but be in prison."
Kelley herself feels no sympathy, though. Compassion, yes. But, not sympathy.
"We all make choices," she said. "The choices they made led them to prison. But, the bright spot is that the choices they're making in prison also lead them to the program."
That's because a stay at Vaughn does not automatically qualify an inmate for the program, which much like a community outreach program, runs in six-week cycles with two weeks in between to regroup. DOC Public Information Officer John Painter said that an inmate has to exhibit good behavior before permission to participate will be granted, which often requires recommendations from the staff overseeing prisoners. The inmates are then given an application to fill out and are allowed to prioritize two classes of the four that are offered. The applications are screened and a new class list is generated.
Right now, the classes being offered are Introduction to Portrait Drawing, Beginning Drawing and Painting, Advanced Painting I and Advanced Painting II. The art instructor is also an inmate.
For Kelley's part, she handles the managerial aspects of the program, which includes supplies and scheduling as well as then selling the artwork at shows or exhibiting at places like Legislative Hall in Dover. The prisoners do get "paid" if their artwork sells and the split is 70 percent for the inmate and 30 percent for the program. However, if a piece requires framing and matting, those costs get deducted from the inmate's percentage. The money the inmate gets goes into a commissary account, which might allow him to purchase snacks or toiletries but it also allows the inmate to put money towards any restitution that is required of him.
Kelley's job is equal parts vocation and career choice. Each day brings something different for her. Some days she might be ordering or inventorying supplies, other days she'll be at the prison, physically overseeing the program. Still, other days find her in the community.
"I love what I do," Kelley said while explaining that she's aware that she—and the program—are often the brightest spots in the otherwise regimented prison experience. "The program has benefited me, too. I have an appreciation for life and freedom that comes from seeing what days without the freedom to do what you want is like."