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Prison art exhibit in Iowa City to raise awareness of ex-offenders' challenges

Display open to public through January

Art work produced by Iowa prison inmates is displayed in the halls of the Little Village magazine in Iowa City. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Art work produced by Iowa prison inmates is displayed in the halls of the Little Village magazine in Iowa City. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Making customized greeting cards was Doren Walker’s prison hustle, a way to earn behind-bars currency of toiletries, stamps or pop tokens.

One card colored by Walker is featured in “A Glimpse Inside: Art Produced in Iowa Prisons,” a small exhibit hosted through January by Little Village and InsideOut Reentry in Iowa City.

The 50 pieces, which include pencil sketches of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities, detailed drawings of colorful motorcycles and two larger pieces featuring what look like cartoon villains, are part of the art collection Walker built during his time behind bars.

“I’ve been collecting it for 15 years,” said Walker, 55, of Riverside.

His goal in sharing the art is to help Iowans see offenders as individuals with talent and skills, but who may need help finding a job or an affordable apartment after release.

Walker is a volunteer for InsideOut Reentry, an Iowa City not-for-profit that connects ex-offenders to the services and resources they need to return to society.

Prison artists have limited materials, including colored pencils, card stock and construction paper, Walker said. But making art in prison can stave off boredom, provide a temporary escape and help inmates earn extra “income,” he said.

“I had a very lucrative greeting card business the first few years I was in prison,” Walker said.

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He and a few other guys would develop designs, say for Mother’s Day, that could be customized with offenders’ moms’ names or favorite colors. On prison payday — most offenders earn less than $1 per hour — Walker and his team would barter cards for items they needed or prison currency of pop tokens or stamps, he said.

He also commissioned custom art, like a piece with the outline of Iowa filled with prison bars and his last name above.

“It’s a huge part of my life,” he said of the collection.

Vicki Rush Siegel, a retired attorney who volunteers at InsideOut with Walker, encouraged him to show his collection. She talked with Mike Cervantes, InsideOut director, who asked Jordan Sellergren, art director for Little Village, if they could use the magazine’s lobby.

People can view the art most weekdays through Jan. 31 at Little Village, at 623 S. Dubuque St. The office is closed on federal holidays. The University of Iowa’s Daily Palette also is featuring individual pieces online.

New resource guide for ex-offenders

InsideOut Reentry, with support from the Iowa Department of Corrections, has released a new guide offering resources and services for people returning from incarceration.

The guide, which will be updated every six months, includes contact information for Iowa substance abuse services, housing options, mental health resources, support groups and more. The database has been provided at all nine Iowa correctional institutions and work release residential facilities, InsideOut reported.

The information also is available online at http://www.insideoutreentry.com/. Links at the top of the page provide a complete re-entry support resources master guide and regional versions that are printable.

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