Prisoner Disciplined for Selling Paintings for Charity

A prisoner at a California prison has been forced to undergo discipline–for selling paintings and donating the money to charity.

A prison artist in California who uses the dye from M&M’s for paint has been disciplined for what a prison official yesterday called “unauthorized business dealings” in the sale of his paintings. The prison has also barred the prisoner, Donny Johnson, from sending his paintings through the mail.

Mr. Johnson’s work has been on display for the last several weeks at a gallery in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Twenty of his paintings have been sold, for $500 each.

Mr. Johnson had donated the paintings to the Pelican Bay Prison Project, a charity which says it will honor Mr. Johnson’s wish that it use the proceeds from the show to help the children of prisoners.

According to a “serious rules violation report” issued by the prison last month, Mr. Johnson ran afoul of a corrections department regulation that prohibits engaging in a business or profession without the warden’s permission. The regulation defines a business as “any revenue-generating or profit-making activity.”

Francisco Jacquez, the chief deputy warden at Pelican Bay State Prison, in Crescent City, Calif., said the violation could extend Mr. Johnson’s sentence or restrict his privileges. “There are some consequences, and that’s what we use to maintain discipline in prison,” Mr. Jacquez said, declining to be more specific.

Look, I’ll be honest. It’s hard to have sympathy for a two-time murderer, and I don’t. His deeds earned him a place in prison, and he doesn’t deserve to be allowed his freedom.

That said, this kind of discipline seems pretty stupid. I mean, his art sucks, but people are willing to buy it–why stop that? And if he’s not personally profiting from the sales, what’s the harm? But there’s a bigger principle here. Right now this guy is serving three life sentences, but it’s possible that one day the law’s gonna change and he’ll be allowed parole. If he is allowed out, wouldn’t it be a good idea for him to have a skill that enables him to earn a living, instead of, you know–turning to crime?

I think the biggest problem of our prison system is that it is entirely too focused on punishment. Look, it’s punishment enough to be denied your basic liberties. While those prisoners are there, doesn’t it make sense to help them out so that when they leave prison, they can lead productive lives? What good is letting them out if the system we have now just pretty much ensures that they’re going to go right back to prison?

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Michael says:

    I always thought that all prisons should provide education services. How many inmates in this country don’t even have a GED? If you’re stuck in there for the next 5, 10 years, why not get a high school or even college level education? Statistics show that educated people are less likely to be convicted of a crime. So instead of watching TV all day, send them to school. Grade them even, let their grades determine things like early parole.

  2. just me says:

    Probably teaching trades would be more useful-too many college degrees would qualify you for less pay than a plumber or qualified mechanic would make.

    What bothers me the most about this story is that prisons can’t keep drugs out, controlling gang violence is extremely difficult, but the guy selling paintings for charity is the one who get punished.

    Now I am sure there is probably a good purpose of the rule, but in this case, I would give him the permission to sell his paintings as long as it is under the current circumstances. I am not seeing any harm in what he is doing, makes the rule as it applies to this situation seem too arbitrary, since the rule implied permission can be gotten.

  3. Pug says:

    What you are talking about used to be called rehabilitation. Prison systems changed to punishment only in the ’80’s & ’90’s as politicians tried to outdo one another at being tough on crime.

    Mr. Johnson earned his life sentences but guys like him, violent killers, rapists, child molesters, etc, make up only about a third of the prison population. Another third are in for drug crimes and the rest for property crimes.

    That two-thirds are the ones who will be released. Those who are willing should be helped to improve themselves by learning a trade or even getting a college degree. Good luck finding a politician who will campaign on that one.

  4. Lets see. We have a population that is overwhelmingly made up of those who don’t follow the rules (i.e. commit crimes). We have a rule that says you can’t pass go without the wardens approval. I haven’t read the report (no NYT registration for me), so I can’t see if he tried to get approval and was denied or if he just thought that was another of life’s rules he gets to ignore. I also take it from your post that we don’t know what the punishment is going to be. Maybe he gets time added on to a sentance that is already life. Given his current sentance, losing his pudding privileges for a month would be a bigger blow.

    So your proposal is those that can’t live by societies rules should be allowed to break prison rules because some day they might be put back into the general population if the laws about serving three life sentances changes. No unintended consequences forseen about teaching prisoners that rules don’t have to be followed.

    “What good is letting them out if the system we have now just pretty much ensures that they’re going to go right back to prison? ”

    Number one, unless the law changes he won’t be let out. Number two, there is another solution to the “three strikes your out” life sentancing rules. Its “three strikes and you get to meet Sparky”. So if the problem is recidivism, there is one punishment with a very low recidivism rate.

  5. floyd says:

    yetanotherjohn;thank you for the lucid insight[or is it incite?] into the thinking of rule makers and prison officials.never do what’s right,just do as you are told! [ justme; a third of the prison guards and officials ARE gang members, the government only pretends to control our prisons,while the public snickers at their inability [or unwillingness] to even protect an inmate from rape or even is clear why the drugs flow inside those walls. many times,prison officials are criminal coconspirators without accountability.