Portraits Of Prisoners Show The Human Toll Of The War On Drugs

Artist Ricardo Cortés’s simple drawings of the men and women incarcerated at New York’s Rikers Island put human faces to the statistics.

Jails are good at two things: Not letting the prisoners out (most of the time), and not giving the public a good look inside. But once you pass through the security checkpoints on Rikers Island, many of the people inside reflect some of the thousands arrested in New York City each year for non-violent misdemeanor drug offenses, the mentally ill, and those simply too poor to afford bail.


Ricardo Cortés, an illustrator most well known for his work on the book Go the Fuck to Sleep, has been teaching art workshops at two separate jails on Rikers for the past year. He’s also been creating intimate portraits of the inmates, who sit for half an hour while he sketches them in pencil.

Cortés wants to draw connections between the people he works with and the failures of the multi-billion dollar war on drugs. Drug-related arrests far outstrip the other crimes that populate New York City jails, and they disproportionally net black and Hispanic men and women.

“The majority of arrests that have led to incarceration are for drug crimes,” Cortés says. “Most people in my social circle, use drugs from time to time whether it’s marijuana or alcohol. But in my social milieu, my friends aren’t getting arrested and incarcerated.”

Because Rikers comprises a series of jails, not prisons, many prisoners are there awaiting a trial. They could be there for weeks, or months, or years, depending on when that court date is scheduled. And outside of the simple fact that inmates are living behind bars, on an island, far away from family and friends, that wait can turn hellish if it develops into a period of solitary confinement. A report published in November found that New York City puts inmates in solitary confinement at nearly twice the national rate, and that one in every 10 people on Rikers is held in solitary at any given time. The mentally ill are particularly vulnerable to this type of punishment–again, often for non-violent offenses at the discretion of jail officers at the time.

Cortés can’t really develop a full lesson plan because of the uncertainty of the prisoners’ stays. So instead he takes requests, most commonly for coloring book paper, markers, and pencils. “I’m just trying to introduce some resources, really,” he says. “I have a whole system of bringing a couple of Dora the Explorers, Winnie the Poohs, lion scenes, a lot of coloring book paper, and they use those in creating cards or writing notes back to their kids or lovers.”

Working with the inmates in this context sometimes makes it difficult to understand why they’re stuck in these situations first place, Cortés says. “It’s a very difficult thing to be talking to someone and really feel a rapport, and then they get sentenced to 15 years. Someone will say, ‘Yeah I’m going upstate for 15,’ and it’s like an 18 year-old kid.”


“And I’m just at a loss for words,” Cortés continues. “There’s nothing I can say and it’s just heartbreaking.”

That’s not to say that Cortés doesn’t acknowledge the crimes of his art workshoppers. But he suspects that fundamental societal inequalities have a lot to do with it, too–and that interventions, either in education or in community-focused policing, could and should have taken place long before the arrests.

This is not the first time that Cortés has illustrated painful social injustices. In 2007, he co-authored a coloring book called I Don’t Want to Blow You Up!, which presented American characters of various ethnic and religious backgrounds trying to educate their countrymen influenced by post-9/11 xenophobic paranoia.

When I ask Cortés how he might want to correct misconceptions about Rikers inmates, he answers simply: “The people that I work with are just New Yorkers.”

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.