PARKCHESTER — The first time guards patted her down and ushered her into a prison visiting room, Carolyn Stanford was 5 years old.
In the 50 years since, she has visited brothers, uncles, cousins and her only son in prison.
“I say that I’ve been in prison all my life,” said Stanford, 56, a retired Verizon worker.
Today, she continues to visit and correspond with prisoners, but for a different reason — she has become an unpaid agent for jailhouse artists, sending them orders then selling the finished pieces they mail her.
The idea is to help inmates pass their time productively while they are behind bars, so that when they re-enter the wider world, they arrive with a profitable skill.
“They are very appreciative to have someone say, ‘That’s an awesome painting,'” Stanford said. “To have someone say that, ‘When you come home, we’re going to do something positive.’”
Several years ago, when her son was in federal prison in California, Stanford met an inmate who was doing time alongside him named “Freeway” Ricky Ross — a since-released drug kingpin who was reportedly the inspiration for rapper Rick Ross.
At the time, Stanford was selling T-shirts emblazoned with “Military Mom” and similar phrases to soldiers’ families as a way to earn some extra cash.
The inmate Ross suggested Stanford connect with another prisoner, Willie Weaver-Bey, a self-taught artist who could design more T-shirts for her.
The two did connect, but instead of T-shirt designs, Weaver-Bey mailed her full-sized canvas paintings. Stanford decided to market his work.
And, with that, a business was born.
Today, through her for-profit company, Inside Out Art, Stanford represents about seven self-taught jailhouse artists.
She only works with federal inmates — since they are permitted to order art supplies — and ones who committed non-violent crimes, since they will eventually be released and can apply their art skills in the outside world.
Weaver-Bey, who has been incarcerated for over a quarter-century, helps recruit artists he meets as he is transferred from one prison to the next.
Stanford then begins corresponding with them — usually via paper mail, since many can’t work a computer or type.
This can be the most demanding part of her work.
“You don’t want to start writing a person in prison and then stop,” she explained. “They live vicariously through you… and if you don’t respond, you’re stepping on their trust.”
For inspiration, she sends the artists photos she snaps of trees and flowers around her neighborhood or of the beach. She also forwards them the occasional photograph of a customer who would like a portrait made.
The prisoners then mail their finished canvases to Stanford, who turns them into $3 greeting cards or $40 framed 11x14 prints.
With their greeting-card customers in mind, the prisoners have painted famous African Americans (Al Sharpton, Barack Obama), religious scenes (clasped hands, church dancers), military images (a saluting veteran, a soldier sweeping a woman off her feet) and romantic moments (couples caressing).
Other inmate artists have crafted leather handbags and decorated vases to be sold.
Stanford sells the work at art fairs, church gatherings, from the living-room gallery in her Parkchester apartment and, once, out of her cabin on a cruise ship.
She uses her own money to pay the vending fees, printing costs, copyright charges and traveling expenses to visit the inmates, returning all the sales revenue to the artists so that they can buy more supplies.
The arrangement has forced her to take on a retail job to supplement her retirement savings.
“I think the work is worth it,” she said. “I felt like it was something I was supposed to do.”
While she awaits the day when her artists have completed their sentences and can begin to deliver their work in person, she points to her son as a paradigm of a reformed ex-offender.
When he was 27 years old and living in Connecticut, he shot a man whom he believed had torched his car and was sent to prison.
While inside, he earned his GED and studied business management and graphic design.
He also fell in love with a woman who worked as a prison counselor.
When he was released early for good behavior, after serving 13 years, he was sent to a halfway house and, while there, he and the woman married.
Today, he works for the government in a Connecticut town replacing crosswalk signals.