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The Frame

The Prison Portraits

A Pennsylvania artist draws hundreds of fellow inmates to show the scale of mass incarceration.

Before he went to prison, Mark Loughney used watercolors and acrylics to create bright, playful portraits of his favorite musicians. His early work features Trey Anastasio and Grace Potter and Snoop Dogg, all smiling and content, deep into their guitars and joints. But then Loughney himself took a dark turn, committing a crime that even now, years later, he can barely explain.

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In 2012, when he was 35 and struggling to make it as an artist, Loughney got into a fight with residents of an apartment building. According to police, he returned with a gasoline container and set the building on fire, sending multiple people to the hospital. It was big news in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, where Loughney was raised and his father was serving a term as mayor. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison. At sentencing, his lawyer brought up the role of alcohol, but Loughney has difficulty comprehending his actions. “It wasn't as if I was in the midst of an addiction or dealing with clinical anger … It was a fight gone bad,” he writes in a recent message from State Correctional Institution-Dallas, 30 miles southwest of his hometown. “The main point I hope you can make for me is that I am very remorseful and contrite for what I did.”

After he entered prison, his partner left him, and at times he felt catatonic. But listening to an interview with the Australian painter Johnny Romeo, on the radio, inspired him to return to his passion. “By the end of his interview, I was on my feet, in my cell, working,” he writes. “I’m able now to actually understand how fragile and fleeting life is.” To make sense of his new surroundings, he began to draw what was around him, but instead of depicting the bars and razor wire, he focused on the people.

At first, his pencil-on-paper portraits of fellow prisoners were meant to be gifts they could give to their parents, wives and children. Eventually, Loughney realized that lining hundreds of them up on a wall would make for a dramatic comment on politics and policy. “The irony is that 500 faces is not even a drop in the bucket of our 2.4 million brothers, mothers, sisters, and fathers that are locked away in prisons in our country,” he writes. The drawings were first shown last May at a gallery in Scranton, the city that adjoins Loughney’s hometown, under the title “Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration.” (The title is from the book “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison,” by the scholars Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton.)

Loughney’s friends and family back home help him promote his work on Facebook and Instagram, and he is looking for future venues to show the drawings. He asks viewers to donate to victims’ advocacy organizations and sends proceeds to them. “This is a way that I am able to put my feelings of remorse into a tangible form,” he writes.

The only criteria Loughney uses for choosing his subjects is their willingness to sit for 20 minutes “amidst the chaos of prison,” which is “harder than you’d think.” It also brings him into contact with all sorts of prisoners he might not otherwise meet. “I saw a guy here with a skeletal middle finger tattoo that engulfed his entire face,” Loughney recalled. “I said ‘Dude, I gotta draw you.’ I asked him his name and he said, ‘Face.’ I asked him why people called him Face, and he replied that it's because he's handsome.”

Often the men sit in silence while Loughney draws, but sometimes they discuss their pasts. Loughney’s mental library of anecdotes is frequently heartbreaking. In summer of 2015, he kept noticing another prisoner on the yard—”an Asian man with striking long, white hair...he looked like a rock star from the 80s”—and he asked to draw him. They talked about the man’s love of drumming, and Loughney told him about drummers he liked. When Loughney finished his portrait, the man said, “Wow! You’ll make a million dollars!” He was from Laos, he said, and had escaped the country when his family was murdered. Now, he was in prison for drug possession, and he worried his life would be in danger should he be deported. “Two weeks later, ICE came to get him,” Loughney wrote. He has since forgotten his name.

He also drew Phil Africa, who had helped lead MOVE, a Philadelphia-based black liberation group, before being sentenced to more than 30 years for the fatal shooting of a police officer. As Loughney drew, a fly buzzed around them, occasionally landing on Africa’s face. “You could swat that fly if you want,” Loughney said. “No, he’s alright,” Africa responded. “He’s our brother, too.” Africa died soon after.