A Shaft of Light
Inside a 12 x 7-foot cell, a shaft of light passes through a narrow window positioned high above a small mattress and a bed frame of poured concrete. Instead of landing on the achromatic prison wall or the dusty TV bolted to the ceiling, the light diffuses upon a half-painted canvas mounted on an easel and a loose sheaf of sketches scattered across a concrete desktop.
Christopher Dennison is the first inmate at ADX Florence administrative maximum facility (ADX Supermax), the world’s most secure prison, to be granted permission to paint in his cell—and this is his studio.
Dennison’s cell has a television with a carefully curated selection of channels offering mainly educational and spiritual programming, but he has no access to internet or email and is allowed one 15-minute phone call per month on a secure, monitored line. The magazines and newspapers he and other inmates in his unit read are delayed by weeks to prevent information deemed potentially sensitive to national security from reaching certain prisoners. For the same reasons, any content that might incite violence among inmates or retribution against guards is also heavily redacted or completely censored. Mail sometimes never arrives.
Solitude inside ADX Supermax is unceasing. Space is confined, sound muted and touch forbidden. Who you were before you entered ceases to exist. The most trivial interaction with the outside world is a luxury supreme. Inmates communicate through shower drains, sinks or any other connective architectural tissue that binds them. Some play chess by whispering their moves through the pipework, flushing toilets to muffle the sounds. Most interactions, though, are fleeting—the momentary, clandestine brushing of fingertips through the metal grating of a fence.
ADX Supermax sits atop a mesa where the rolling plains of central Colorado meet the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains. The facility is flanked by thirteen concrete and glass control towers linked by 12-foot-high walls topped with razor wire, while the perimeter is more covertly monitored using laser technology, motion sensors, remote-controlled doors and pressure pads. ADX Supermax is often referred to as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” and it was designed with a singular purpose—to house the most violent male inmates in the United States prison system.
Dennison is serving consecutive life sentences for crimes that would have carried a lighter term had he not agreed to sign a plea deal protecting his wife from prosecution. He was transferred to ADX Supermax not for his original crimes, but because he’s a bona fide escape risk.
After transferring to ADX Supermax, Dennison gained a reputation as a model inmate. He was a few years into his term when he was selected to participate in a test group for a therapeutic arts program called Creative Arts Platform (CAP) that was run by Justin Reddick, a professional artist and religious services assistant at ADX Supermax. The budding arts program had shown promising results with inmates in lower-security facilities, and Dennison would take part in the first trial run conducted in a maximum security facility.
He committed himself to the CAP program, and over the course of some months gained the trust of the warden, who ultimately granted Dennison permission to receive art supplies and paint in his cell. Today, he works almost exclusively in solitary confinement, preparing his paintings to be exhibited in public. He has become the first professional artist of ADX Supermax.
Just a few hundred yards from Dennison’s cell in the supermax unit is Florence High maximum-security prison, where another CAP participant named Kieron Webber is 33 years into a life sentence for a crime he committed when he was 19 years old. Webber has been in the program longer than anyone else, having honed his craft as an artist after nearly two years in the program. Like Dennison, he has become a professional artist. Although they do not know each other—the choices they made decades ago as civilians suggest they never will—they are the most accomplished CAP artists.
Webber and Dennison are housed in Florence Federal Correctional Complex (FCC Florence), a sprawling penal compound that includes ADX Supermax, Florence High and two lower-security prisons. Another nine prisons are scattered across Fremont County, Colorado. Among the thirteen total correctional facilities, ADX Supermax is the highest profile and among the least populated with 376 inmates as of late 2019, or just over five percent of the county’s total prison population of 7,600. The twin towns of Cañon City (pop. 16,679) and Florence (pop. 3,914) comprise the vast majority of Fremont County’s population base, meaning that around a quarter of the county is incarcerated—earning it the moniker “Prison Valley.”
The origins of Prison Valley can be traced back to the lawless days of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush (1858-1861) when an estimated 100,000 settlers and prospectors from the eastern United States—many fleeing the impending Civil War—migrated west toward the Rocky Mountains in then-Kansas Territory. By 1868, the populations living in the largely-ungoverned mountain towns and plains settlements of newly-formed Colorado Territory had swollen to unmanageable numbers, leading to unchecked crime and a public call to build a territorial prison and assert the rule of law.
Stacey Cline, director of the Museum of Colorado Prisons, explains that Cañon City was locked in fierce competition with Boulder City (present-day Boulder) to be named the site of the new prison. Two local ranchers, Jonathan Draper and Anson Rudd, offered to donate land to support the effort and combat a scheme by Boulder residents to strike Cañon City from the voting ledger. Cañon City won out and Draper’s land was selected over Rudd’s due to its natural quarry, corralling hogbacks and proximity to the Arkansas river. Rudd, however, would go on to become the first warden of Colorado Territorial “Old Max” Prison when it opened in 1871.
Stacey explains that Rudd and Draper’s efforts to secure Colorado’s first prison marks the beginning of Cañon City’s “long history of donating land to the Federal government.” But it wasn’t until the early 1990s, when Bureau of Prisons director Norman Carlson announced a plan to build the first federal supermax prison in the wake of violent prison riots at US Penitentiaries, Atlanta and Oakdale, that Cañon City cemented its reputation as the prison capital of the United States. Local residents lobbied hard for the $60 million facility to be built in Fremont County, going so far as to donate 600 acres to the cause.
Although it is estimated that around half of the population works in the corrections industry, Cline downplays its influence on daily life in Fremont County, explaining that talk around town is rarely about the prison system. One notable exception was when locals caught wind that the family of notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán had purchased a house in Cañon City several years before he was convicted and transferred to ADX Supermax. Cline says it caused some concern, but she doesn’t feel unsafe in town nor does she think prisons define her adopted home. “People usually walk through the gate and the leave the job behind.”
Contrary to the dominant narrative, the majority of prisoners at ADX Supermax are not high-profile criminals. They are transfers from lower-security prisons where they committed violent crimes or attempted escape. With good behavior, they will enter a “step down” unit within the facility and eventually be transferred elsewhere.
The inmates who make ADX Supermax infamous carry Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) designations and live in near total isolation in one of the prison’s “control units.” Many are considered a threat to national security due to their roles in the 1993 and 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, the bombings of the Oklahoma City Federal building (1995), the Atlanta Olympics (1996), the Boston Marathon (2013), and other acts of mass violence. They share their units with serial killers, mafia dons, cartel bosses, gang leaders, CIA and FBI double agents, and other convicted terrorists. It is the bureau’s intention that these men will never leave ADX Supermax.
The Fall of Goliath
Justin Reddick first set foot in ADX Supermax in 2013, soon after he began working in the commissary at Florence Federal Corrections Complex. He was delivering food to inmates in the unit’s most secure sectors when he noticed drawings in some of the cells and struck up conversations with the artists through the bars. Though the encounters were brief, Reddick recognized the potential for transformative educational programming at FCC Florence. He set out to create a platform that would be mutually beneficial for both the inmates and the prison, drawing inspiration from San Quentin’s long-standing Arts in Corrections program.
At the time, Reddick had neither the resources nor the administrative support to nurture his vision for a therapeutic prison arts program. Only after transferring to the Religious Services department in the spring of 2016 did he manage to quietly jumpstart the program, recruiting Dr. Paul Zohn, a prison staff psychologist, and Jessica Salo, the re-entry affairs coordinator at FCC Florence, to the team. But it took a chance encounter with Matte Refic, a visual artist based in nearby Pueblo, Colorado, for CAP to really take shape.
Reddick was refining the CAP curriculum when he came across Refic’s introspective adult coloring book Meet Your Monsters and reached out to Refic to ask permission to include it in the syllabus. He thought the illustrative self-assessments might help his students to better understand the breadth of their emotions. The two decided to meet, and over conversations about the interplay between art and incarceration an idea to paint a public mural with CAP participants was born. Reddick drafted a proposal and presented it to the warden, anticipating a swift rejection.
The warden unexpectedly approved the mural, but under the condition that it would be painted in a controlled, off-site environment, and only by inmates from minimum security facilities who were scheduled for release. Those who met the selection criteria were then tasked with sketching out a proposal.
Several sites around Fremont County were considered before Refic and Reddick were ushered into the basement of the Museum of Colorado Prisons by Stacey Cline. The fortified, two-story building served as the Colorado Women’s Prison for much of the 20th century, and it retains many of its original security features. A manned guard tower sits atop the 25-foot-tall stone wall that separates the museum from the operational medium security Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility next door. The museum is encircled by fences topped with razor wire and its basement has only one exit.
“I loved the fact that the mural was the inmate’s concept and a symbol of hope,” says Cline, recalling her initial reaction to the proposal.
But when Cline offered Reddick and Refic the entire 30-foot-long back wall of the basement, they began to worry that the mural couldn’t be completed in the time allotted and that they would fail to deliver on their promise to the warden. A tense few weeks passed in preparation before the inmates were loaded into a van at the FCC Florence and driven to the museum in downtown Cañon City.
“They brought their own lunches,” remembers Cline. “Everyone was extremely respectful. They didn’t want anything to hurt the program. Everyone was keenly aware that every action should have a positive light.”
The inmates were led down into the basement by a team of prison guards, unshackled, and given paint, palettes and brushes. Cline wasn’t allowed to interact or ask any questions during the four days it took the crew of prison-artists to paint the wall from floor to ceiling.
“Everything went off so smoothly,” she says. “We moved exhibits around, primed the wall, and got everything ready for them to work. Paint was donated from Sherwin-Williams [paint supply store]. It was definitely a community effort.”
A few months later, Refic was summoned to the warden’s office and congratulated on the success of the project. The warden wasted little time before informing Refic that he had approved a second mural to be painted in the newly-designated psychology wing at ADX Supermax—one of the few common spaces inmates are taken when they are escorted out of their cells. Refic left the warden’s office in shock.
The location presented a number of challenges: artist’s mobility, limited access to the workspace, security protocols, and censorship. The circumstances presented an unyielding set of restrictions, but Reddick and Refic managed to pull it off.
Then, in January of 2019, the warden commissioned a third CAP mural—this one would be painted in the gymnasium. It was the first time that inmates at ADX Supermax would be the primary participants, marking an inflection point in the evolution of the Creative Arts Platform.
“We faced Goliath and came out victorious on the other end,” Reddick says. “We proved that art facilitation is possible at the highest level of federal security.”
Birds on a Wire
Justin Reddick neither shies away from his spiritual conviction nor leads with it. He is tall, self-assured, eloquent and devoted. Little about his manner of speaking suggests an unwavering evangelical Christian. He quotes the Bible sparingly, albeit with a tenor of reverence rather than reckoning. He is a blend of artist and would-be minister—an iconoclast and man of faith—who carries himself like a clergy of one.
On the final day of CAP’s 2019 “Humanity Rising” prison arts exhibition at the Fremont Center for the Arts, Reddick is exhausted from the barrage of unrelenting interviews, congratulatory phone calls and guided tours. He and Refic have had little time to celebrate CAP’s success—every artist whose work was exhibited at the show sold at least one piece, with half of the proceeds going to a non-profit or charity and the other half going back to the inmates.
As we walk through the exhibition hall, Reddick describes the different phases of the CAP curriculum and explains that the gallery is laid out in such a way that the work of early stage participants is showcased in the outer corridors of the repurposed Renaissance revival post office, while the cavernous interior hall features the paintings of CAP’s two most esteemed graduates, Kieron Webber and Christopher Dennison.
A collection of drawings from Phase One participants have been carefully placed in a six-foot-long glass display case in the outer corridor. Laying side-by-side, the sketches are testament to the sad realization that there is perhaps no other place in the United States where race, ethnicity and gang affiliation converge more tragically than in its prisons. Among them is a figure in Native American headdress; a lone man idling atop a Harley as a woman stands beside him; an ascendant eagle splashed in the red, white and green national colors of Mexico; a portrait of Jimi Hendrix.
Paradoxical though it may seem, because prison strips inmates of their identity, creativity and liberty, it is an ideal staging ground to break down barriers and engage in hard conversations around unresolved traumas. Likewise, it is because prison is a place of lived and shared consequences that the CAP philosophy of redemption finds lasting worth.
Reddick explains that Phase One lays out the foundations of art history, creative movements and pioneers as a way to open conversations about new ways of thinking, and being. “We introduce them to Post-Impressionism—the power of evoking emotion through color—and why that was ground-breaking in art history,” he says. “Then we introduce them to Van Gogh and the idea of self-portraits.”
Van Gogh’s correspondence with his brother, Theo, a prolific writer and art dealer, offers rare insight into art theory at the time. The Van Gogh letters are foundational within CAP philosophy, explains Reddick, insofar as they are designed to encourage self-reflection and foster creative expression.
At the far end of the display case, four green, school-lined notebooks lie open to handwritten letters addressed to participants’ friends and loved ones. Though the writing is honest and at times heart-breaking, the authors agreed to share their letters publicly, laying bare the intimate regrets and brutality of life on the inside. Each offers a solemn reminder of the desire to be heard in a place where vulnerability can get you killed.
“Writing letters is a lost art form,” says Reddick. “But not in prison.”
Phase Two builds on art theory and injects new techniques meant to develop an artist’s distinctive style. Reddick sees this as a critical period, when participants begin to differentiate themselves from their prison identity. As the inmate transforms into the artist, the human is no longer affiliated solely with the crime they committed, but rather with their talent—something mysterious, unbound and admirable.
Many CAP participants are already skilled artists when they enter the program. But they are asked to leave behind their gang affiliations and the symbols they’ve drawn or tattooed countless times and instead draw abstracts. During classes, Refic challenges participants to “learn about being an artist as opposed to somebody just trying to make a hustle out of it.” He describes Phase Two as a chance to “learn about expressionism and learn to be expressive.”
Refic points to one particular drawing in the glass case. “This artist, for example, started out drawing gang art. Now he can express himself in ways that are not necessarily just about his gang. He doesn’t always [adhere to the rules], but that’s a big part of his identity. We can’t really strip that from him. We can give participants this new form of self-expression where they can maintain their old identities and their truths, but find a new way to reach the outside audience.”
Breaking free from the “hustle” of prison is a risky endeavor for gang-affiliated inmates, whose lives on the inside are governed by strict codes of conduct that carry severe consequences when broken. Those who enter the CAP program knowingly subject their artwork to inspection by the intel department. Suspicious combinations of imagery grouped in ones and twos, for example, are flagged because they may represent the letters A and B, which are used by white supremacist gangs in the United States to signify membership in the Aryan Brotherhood or one of its numerous offshoots or affiliated gangs.
“I’m non-judgmental of inmates and I’m non-judgmental of the prison system. Prison sucks,” says Refic bluntly, “but there’s a reason guys are in there.”
“We have big hearts and we lead with that,” adds Reddick. “But we recognize the importance of interdepartmental relationships. It’s absolutely vital that all the work gets cleared before it gets to other people’s eyes because the last thing we want is to have something hidden in a piece.”
The intelligence department spent countless hours analyzing only a fraction of the work submitted for the exhibition. They pored over every detail searching for cryptic messages cloaked in numerology, iconography, color schematics and the relationships between symbols. In the end, they’d had enough and told Reddick and Refic to pick the best from those they had already approved.
The CAP team understands implicitly that security protocols are non-negotiable at ADX Supermax and their agenda is not a priority. Still, Refic has grown to appreciate his role as an outsider. As a civilian, he has been granted unique access and forged lasting relationships with inmates, and he has discovered that art and education are invaluable currency in prison.
“We’re the buzz of the prison,” says Refic. “Everybody knows who we are. I can go in there and show love to people who haven’t had any in 30 years. One of our participants told me, ‘You’re the first guy that I’ve seen in 14 years who isn’t a cop.’”
Some aspects of working with inmates is intuitive, but there is little room for error when weighing goodwill against the inherent hazards that exist inside.
“There are people in there that don’t play,” says Refic. He remembers a time in class when a participant took offense to a flippant comment and shut down the conversation with a warning: “‘Don’t ever talk to me about that or we’re gonna have a problem.’ Everybody stopped at that.”
By his own admission, Refic had no “cred” in the early days of the CAP program. Although Reddick had built professional relationships with some inmates through his work in the chapel, no one really understood what they were trying to do together nor how he and Refic would be received by the general population. As they went cell to cell introducing their concept and trying to drum up interest, one inmate might tell them “Get the f*ck out of my face,” while another would hear them out and offer some ideas.
Back in 2017, Reddick was intent on earning the trust of participants and proving to officials that the model was viable and effective. With success came new challenges. As classes of CAP participants graduated from the 12-week program, interest grew among inmates across all facilities at FCC Florence, and it became clear that Reddick needed to shift his attention toward scalability.
Again he turned to Dr. Zohn and Jessica Salo, this time to help with the task of vetting new applicants. They set out to standardize the evaluation process to better assess a candidate’s suitability—specifically the capacity to work collaboratively, follow-through on assignments, and self-motivate.
“It’s not strength in numbers,” says Refic, “it’s strength in character.” Still, less than a quarter of participants who enter the program make it through. Many have never held jobs, nor balanced a checkbook. “To come up with a proposal for their next project is difficult for some of them.”
For participants who are intellectually, physically and emotionally invested, CAP is a journey into an extramundane world. “We teach them about Pollock, abstract expressionism, how the state of the world matters,” says Reddick. “We pose questions like, ‘Can you control chaos?’ We explain that abstract expressionists give the appearance that their work is spontaneous, but they made hundreds of studies to figure out how to control that explosion…”
When we first show them works by Pollock they think it’s ridiculous. We’ll say, ‘Bring an artist and a non-artist into a room and put a Pollock on a wall. The non-artist is going to say, I could do that. The artist is going to respond, But you would have to want to first. That’s the point: art is subjective. We’re teaching them high quality concepts so that they come out of the program with a new perspective on life if they’re serious about the work.”
Reddick borrowed heavily from the teaching packets available through the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA) free-loan program as he strove to legitimize CAP. His efforts led to FCC Florence becoming the first federal prison complex to be recognized as an institutional affiliate of NGA.
One of Reddick’s favorite classes is an introduction to Romare Bearden’s collages. His students tend to find Bearden’s style and medium more relatable than Van Gogh or Pollock, and collage allows Reddick to emphasize expression over technique, making the experimentation process less threatening and more accessible for fledgling artists. In this way, CAP is a conduit that invites inmates to explore deep emotional landscapes, temporarily freeing them from their prison persona and nurturing an alter ego—a soul unchained.
“We welcome talent,” he says, “but we don’t lead with it.” They place greater value on breaking traditionalism and dismantling the routines of prison life.
Refic adds, “As soon as the bell rings and it’s time to move, it becomes, ‘I can’t hang out with you and you can’t hang out with me. It’s just the rules. We gotta survive this yard.’ Our goal is to foster a creative sanctuary in our space, and we’re starting to see relationships emerge among different gangs, ethnicities and races. They say, ‘We’re the artists. We can talk to each other in the chow line and it’s not going to affect the way our homies think of us because we’ve gone deep together.’ We’re kind of redefining the rules in some ways.”
At the entrance to the exhibition hall is an orange prison jumpsuit painted by a team of CAP participants displayed in a glass case. Emblazoned across the shoulders is the maxim: “DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.” Near the torso, in thick capital letters, the words “Loss of Freedom” and “Hope!” converge like a collision of contradictions. Just above the cuff of the left pant leg, an artist painted a Department of Justice identification tag with a cautionary note: “Do not fill in this ID card with your information.”
“This was a way for us to build a bridge,” says Refic. “The idea was to de-stigmatize something that’s dehumanizing, together.”
The main exhibition hall opens up to “Humanity Rising’s” featured artists, Kieron Webber and Christopher Dennison. Although this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, they are necessarily absent from their professional debut.
The first wing of the main exhibition hall is dedicated to three of Webber’s hyper-realistic rock miniatures. There is a portrait of Jesus, a bison grazing on the plains, and a snarling tiger. Each is agonizingly precise, almost impossibly detailed.
Webber began his practice as a “closet artist” stealing rocks from the yard and sneaking them into his cell hidden under his clothes. He taught himself to paint in darkness and created his own palettes by melting coffee grinds, caramel or skittles with a heating iron, preserving the finished paintings by encasing the rocks with wax used to buffer the floors of his unit.
Webber’s evolution as an artist matured after he moved to paint and canvas. Refic refers to his style as “prison pop art,” and it’s clear that he draws heavily from Warhol. Two of his paintings on display are portraits of Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger—a diptych Webber calls an homage to the trials of youth.
On the far wall is his portrait of Rihanna gazing out beyond the audience. The colors are effusive and the paint is nearly half an inch thick. Upon close inspection, colored pencil shavings emerge from deep within the body of the painting, as if to suggest an inner vulnerability to the outward indomitability of his subject.
Refic marvels at Webber’s ability to build textures and work with mixed media despite his limited resources. “It’s the definition of outsider art: He’ll use Kool-Aid if that is what’s available.”
Conversely, the contextual scope of Dennison’s massive canvases consumes the exhibition hall. His paintings are literal, prescient studies of the human experience through time: a Mesolithic hunting party in a valley of snow, a bearded sage sitting at his desk in thoughtful repose, a space station hovering above Saturn.
“He’s never experienced any of that,” says Refic. “But from what he’s seen on TV and read in magazines, he’s able to hold this very modern illustration that has no context within prison. Part of his process is looking outside of himself, outside of prison, and into another reality. Some of the work is dated because the experiences are long past and he’s trapped in a time warp.”
Nevertheless, his painting of a seductive woman wearing only a partially buttoned shirt that barely conceals her breasts captures seductively and profanely the zeitgeist of consumption and the disconnect of our times. Red hair cascades over her shoulders, as she sits cross-legged atop a pile of Amazon and FEDEX packages with an apple and a halo levitating above her. She is detached, unconcerned, listening to music through earbuds plugged into a digital canyon composed of green code.
Dennison is allowed a few minutes per day to stretch or walk in circles in the sunken recreation pen, known as the “empty swimming pool”—a large metal cage located in an open-air sector of ADX Supermax connected to the main buildings by a “dog run.” The enclosure is surrounded by walls high enough to prevent inmates from surveying their surroundings. The cells at ADX Supermax are designed with similar intent. Dennison’s only other connection to the outside world is the changing palette of the cosmos framed by the four-inch-wide window above his bed.
Webber has seen too many men lose their minds in prison, where rates of mental illness are as high as 15 percent and the descent toward suicidal ideation accelerates unabated without psychological support. He has related to Refic that in order to transform a life sentence into an opportunity to better oneself, it is essential to develop a routine. “The common denominator is to wake up at 4AM and do ten thousand push-ups,” relays Refic. Those who sit around and watch television all day, too often, end up losing control.
Time on the inside has not eroded Webber’s mental faculties, but it has stripped him of his vitality. “He is no longer physically able to get to the workshop due to a degenerative disease,” says Refic. “He just creates.”
The final series of Webber’s paintings are scenes suffused by the faintest glow, as if he attempted to conjure a contemplative world shrouded in twilight. The triptych is meant to juxtapose the “Freedoms of West and East.” In one, a lone rider at dusk gallops across the endless plains, gripping the reins of his horse as it surges forward toward an unknown call. In another, a meditative believer cranes his neck solemnly while listening to the predawn call to prayer echo from minarets that rise in the background.
Webber is described as a man of contradictions. The more orthodox branches of Islam would condemn his paintings to be the work of a musawwir—an idolator, or maker of forms. In spite of conservative interpretation, Webber remains an unapologetic Muslim and unrepentant artist.
To be incarcerated at ADX Supermax is to be branded with a macabre prestige and subject to uncompromising scrutiny. “Every one of Dennison’s paintings has multiple studies to it. He gave us 150 drawings,” recalls Reddick. If the intelligence unit noticed a change in a final painting they had to ask, “Why didn’t he do that in the study?” Reddick could only respond, “Well, because he’s an artist.”
Dennison’s achievements have endowed him with certain privileges like meetings with Refic and Reddick and a few additional hours out of his cell. The remainder of his time he spends alone, reading, exercising, meditating and painting. Art has become Dennison’s new method of escape.
Justin Kiersky is a journalist and editorial coordinator at Arts Everywhere. He lives in Denver, CO with his wife and two children.