Prisoners Show Their True Colors Through Art: 'This Is Who I Really Am'

The paintings featured in the art show “Images From Behind Prison Walls" offered a glimpse into life while incarcerated.

Most teens spend their summer weekends tanning at the beach, camping in the woods or hitting the town with their friends.

Instead, 17-year-old Hector Rodriguez Jr. of Bayside, New York, made the two-hour trek to the Ossining Public Library in Westchester County one Saturday afternoon to attend an art show.

But it was no ordinary showcase.

“Images From Behind Prison Walls” featured 60 paintings, drawings and sketches from inmates all over New York state, offering a rare and at times uncomfortable glimpse into life in a tiny cell. Among the artists was the teen’s father, Hector Rodriguez, who is serving his sentence in Green Haven Correctional Facility, located about 35 miles north of Ossining. Rodriguez was not allowed to attend the show that day.

“Most people in jail don’t have the opportunity to express themselves as a person because there’s a stereotype that everybody in jail is just a criminal and there’s no personality to them,” his son, Rodriguez Jr., told

The inmate’s most notable piece, titled “Magical Garden,” is a vibrant triptych of greens, blues and a bold splash of pink. A plethora of flowers, butterflies and birds converge at the center of the painting, where a black woman stands, her long locks of hair growing into a tree.

Magic Garden, by Hector Rodriguez - (Rehabilitation Through the Arts/Hector Rodriguez)

“I think my dad’s just trying to depict the beauty in nature,” Rodriguez Jr. said. “I’m proud of him when I see something like that.”

Rodriguez is serving a sentence of 25 years to life for second-degree murder, kidnapping, conspiracy and several counts of criminal possession of a weapon. His earliest parole date is April 2023.

Creativity Behind Bars

“Most people have a preconceived notion of who’s behind walls, and often that preconception includes that they come from bad places, and don’t know what they’re saying, and don’t know what they’re doing,” Katherine Vockins, the executive director of nonprofit Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), told

When she first met Rodriguez through RTA, he was “introverted and withdrawn, and wore what we call a prisoner mask – the place you hide behind,” she said.

But like many inmates involved in RTA’s programs, Rodriguez quickly found his bearing and became comfortable opening up.

“His art just flourished – especially when you see the colors,” Vockins said. “Hector works in these primary, wonderful colors that kind of show you who he is on the inside. On the outside, he’s kind of this rough guy from the Bronx, but he is much more than what you see on the outside.”

Vockins founded RTA in 1996 with the hopes of using the arts – theater, dance, visual arts and creative writing – as a way to help inmates across New York State discover their potential.

“RTA is not a path to Broadway, it’s not about making singers or actors,” she said. “The point is that we use the art forms to teach critical life skills, [which] make for better citizens on the inside. If you’re a better citizen on the inside, you will not get into as much trouble.”

Studies conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice have shown that inmates who are involved in RTA’s programs often pursue higher education and see more success in their studies.

“I hope what they get is recognition for their talent,” Vockins said. “Let’s not think about who’s behind walls as monsters and evildoers, which many of them are and have been, [but] the fact that there are wonderful, really decent people, trying to change their lives.

“Their artwork can reflect their transformation and desire to change.”

Art as an Escape

Amaury Bonilla, 44, who now lives with his wife in the Bronx, was just a teen when he began serving his sentence – 25 years to life for a second-degree murder he maintains he didn’t commit.

“I was living with my parents – I was just a young kid exploring life,” he said. “Coming into the prison system, being subjected to all forms of oppression somehow pushes you to go into yourself.”

Bonilla said he has always been a warm and sincere person, passionate about the world around him, but during his incarceration, he felt he had to hide that side of himself to survive.

“There’s like a certain norm in prison, certain things you do and you can’t do, right? People look at you different and when you do the things you’re not supposed to do, you can become vulnerable,” he said.

His escape was art.

“I remember every cell they would place me in, I would draw around the cell,” Bonilla said. “I was escaping from my present situation. [As] an artist, you tend to see yourself as a wizard. With this wand, which is your pen, pencil, whatever, you can choose to create your own world to live in.”

Bonilla was released in April after spending 24 years and 11 months in various state prisons.

While most of his pieces are now on display at his home, he contributed his piece “Wonders of the Soul” to the show. It’s a fiery, passionate painting of reds, oranges and yellows intertwining.

Wonders of the Soul, by Amaury Bonilla - (Rehabilitation Through the Arts/Amaury Bonilla)

Bonilla explained the two barely distinguishable figures in the piece reflect his inner conflict – a vibrant soul and anger from not being able to let it show.

“It identifies pretty much my journey through life [and] finding that spiritual balance,” he said.

As a boy, he remembers staying up late with his father. Armed with a pen and paper, the pair would spend hours doodling.

“I was maybe about 7 or 8 years old when he gave me a pen,” Bonilla recalled. “I was like, ‘A pen? How am I going to erase my mistakes?’ And he said, ‘Create art from your mistakes. You don’t need to erase them.’”

A Second Chance

One of the more coveted pieces of the art show, titled “A Prisoner’s Blues,” was painted by artist Jeffrey Clemente, 35, of Brooklyn, New York.

A Prisoner's Blues, by Jeffrey Clemente - (Rehabilitation Through the Arts/Jeffrey Clemente)

Clemente, who attended the show, explained the piece is based on his own experiences receiving bad news and working through grief in a short phone call.

“I lost my sister while I was in prison. I lost my mother while I was in prison,” he told

The subject in the piece turns away from the many prison cells behind him. He talks on the phone, tears streaming down his face.

“One of the hardest things is to be in a violent place like that and really cope with it,” Clemente said. “Prison is pretty much a place where people would laugh at your pain. They don’t come to console you. They don’t come to uplift you. They will sit and laugh at your pain. ‘Look at this grown man crying.’

“But the one thing I learned about being in prison was it’s all right for a man to cry. It’s alright for a man to express that he’s hurting and it’s perfectly fine to shed tears in front of other men. That was my biggest barrier in life,” he added.

He was released in December after serving 15 years of his 18-year sentence for killing a friend.

“I took a life. I’m not proud of it,” he said. “Every chance I get, I want to take the opportunity to apologize to his family, apologize to him even though he’s not here.”

Clemente said he’s struggled with anger management his whole life.

“Anytime one of my parents or someone got upset with me, I got hit. So I learned that that was something I do when I get angry at somebody – I hit them.”

The turning point came while speaking to his daughter on the phone after getting mad at her mother for not bringing her for a visit.

“She told me, ‘Dad, I’m glad I at least can speak to you,’” he recalled. “I think that was the first moment that I really realized what I did. The emotions flooded me. I came to the realization that [my friend’s] child will never be able to speak to him.”

He eventually found his way to RTA, and he credits art with helping him learn to manage his anger.

“It’s important for people’s pieces to be in here because we’re learning to express ourselves,” Clemente said. “We’re reaching out to people to let them know, ‘I exist. I’m here. This is who I really am. This is inside of me.’”

Beautiful Peace, by Jeffrey Clemente - (Rehabilitation Through the Arts/Jeffrey Clemente)

Since his release, Clemente said his favorite thing to do is to take a walk and enjoy the fresh air.

“No barriers. No one to say, ‘Go back in the house,’” he explained. “I’ll go sit in the park, and there’s water in the back. [It helps me] remember this freedom, so that I don’t ever forget it.”

Clemente is now focusing on reconnecting with his children and preparing for a new baby with his girlfriend, who is due in October.

Reconnecting With Family

Rodriguez Jr. was not yet born when his father got locked up.

“My mom left when I was about 1, and then I didn’t see [my dad] until I was 7,” he explained. “I only got phone calls when I was, like, 13 years old.”

Green Haven, by Hector Rodriguez - (Rehabilitation Through the Arts/Hector Rodriguez)

But Rodriguez Jr. said he’s seen his relationship with his father improve over the years, and speaks with him over the phone regularly about day-to-day happenings in his life.

In part, he credits the change to RTA.

“He tells me he’s always working on something new for the program […] he’s always like doing art and now he has another opportunity to do it,” he said. “It’s important for me to be here because I have to support my dad. I’m proud of him and all the stuff he’s doing.

"He’d probably be happy that I’m here.”