Breaking barriers through art creates fair opportunities

Breaking barriers through art creates fair opportunities Main Photo

5 Apr 2023

News, Workforce Stories

A prison sentence introduces a traumatic challenge to the lives of the incarcerated. But the difficulty of immersing back into society at the end of their prison term can present these individuals with an equally challenging scenario.

About one-fourth of incarcerated Minnesota individuals released each year return to prison with a new felony conviction within three years of release. Meaningful employment is critical to combatting this recidivism, but justice-impacted individuals face numerous structural barriers to securing employment. Numerous organizations in Ramsey County, like Art from the Inside, dedicate their efforts to breaking down those barriers. 

“Over my career, I would hear stories from individuals returning to incarceration because they could not find opportunities to earn a living. They had no choice but to come back because the barriers on the outside were too difficult to overcome,” said Antonio Espinosa, Art from the Inside founder. “I believe it is unjust as a society not to provide opportunities for these individuals who have done their time and want nothing more than to rise above their past.”


The number of justice-impacted individuals who have left or are in the process of leaving the criminal justice system flies under the radar of mainstream awareness. The Minnesota Department of Correction reported 4,586 releases in 2022, while the Prison Policy Initiative reported that as of 2018, there were approximately 95,000 Minnesota residents on probation.

Despite a strong interest in getting into productive employment, these individuals have historically faced many obstacles to returning to the workforce. Barriers arise from fear and a lack of education on a general societal basis, said Espinosa.

“Unless an individual or a family member is affected by incarceration personally, most people do not care about the issues,” he said. “But we should all care because it impacts all of us.”

The Prison Policy Initiative indicates, ‘this perpetual labor market punishment creates a counterproductive system of release and poverty, hurting everyone involved: employers, the taxpayers and certainly formerly incarcerated people looking to break the cycle.’

Art from the Inside

Art from the Inside attempts to interrupt that cycle through education and awareness. Founded by Espinosa, a correctional officer at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater for nearly 20 years, the organization offers a path for incarcerated artists to express themselves through art and community exhibitions. With a focus on empowering incarcerated artists to experience personal transformation and restoration, personal and collective power to change is achievable. One incarcerated artist, C.B., stated, “By giving the incarcerated artists a platform, we encourage redemption narratives and a public belief in second chances.”

Creating art is a therapeutic activity for the incarcerated. Many did not have the opportunity to develop their artistic talents before prison. Now, they can establish a platform to open a door for their creativity and self-awareness.

“The artistic process creates a dialogue to figure out their source of pain and how to move forward,” said Espinosa. “Seeing others appreciate their creations can build that essential sense of worth.”

Whether through painting, drawing, graphic design, poetry or writing, the skillful art illustrates these individuals’ tremendous talent but, more importantly, an existing underlying benefit to the public.

“The art is a vehicle for that uncomfortable conversation about who these individuals are,” he said. “While the artists gain confidence from realizing they can create something others enjoy, the community can also begin to see them for more than their record.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique opportunity to address the situation. When so many businesses cannot locate enough employees, hiring managers can turn to justice-impacted individuals as an untapped resource of persons willing and eager to work. 

“We have to ask ourselves if we are about punishment or transformation,” said Espinosa. “Reentry into society is difficult, so this platform can provide a proactive opportunity to show mercy, not hate, to those who need it.”

Upcoming exhibition

Part Two of the IDENTITY Series by Art from the Inside features original works created by artists at Minnesota correctional facilities. The exhibit will run from April 5 to April 30 at Creators Space at 218 7th St. E, in downtown Saint Paul. Check its website for special events throughout the month, directions or open times to the public.

The St. Paul Area Chamber, in partnership with the Workforce Innovation Board of Ramsey County, is hosting its monthly Chamber Connect during the exhibition at Creators Space on Thursday, April 20, from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Network with appetizers and drinks while hearing from Espinosa about his journey creating Art from the Inside. Attendance is free and donations are encouraged for Art from the Inside to continue its work.

Other area organizations.

Some other area organizations working to connect justice-impacted individuals with resources include:

  • The Minnesota Department of Corrections has several reentry services and resources, like the Minnesota Transition Coalitions. 
  • Repowered, formerly Tech Dump, is one of Minnesota’s largest collectors of e-waste but is also a social enterprise that provides jobs and training for persons facing barriers to employment.
  • Twin Cities R!se has a mission “to transform the lives of those impacted by racial or socio-economic barriers through Personal Empowerment, career training and meaningful employment.”
  • Ujamaa Place prepares men who are unemployed or underemployed and have yet to hold a consistent job due to instability or incarceration to enter the workforce through numerous services and resources. 
  • We Are All Criminals is a Minnesota non-profit organization dedicated to challenging society’s perceptions of being “criminal.” 

Series on justice-impacted resources.

This piece is the second in a series of Fair Opportunities articles meant to raise awareness of the employment needs of justice-impacted individuals and the benefits to employers willing to give these returning citizens a chance at meaningful employment. Watch for upcoming content on detailed looks into area providers and resources working actively, as well as businesses and individuals who have directly benefited from their interactions. Justice-impacted individuals and local employers can contact Ramsey County Workforce Solutions for assistance.