By EMELIA HITCHNER
For eight and a half years, former inmate Moliere DiManche had too much time on his hands.
As he cycled through several institutions of the Florida Department of Corrections, he began to document his experience through a series of pencil sketches. Every line on the back of canteen order forms and D.R. sheets represented a scenario DiManche watched unfold from his place behind bars.
“Most of my art reflects my prison time and the events leading up to it,” he said. “They’re pieces that are hard to describe; people are always asking me what it means.”
DiManche was released in April and, with the help of local artist and prison-reform activist Wendy Tatter, he’s using the illustrations to visualize chapters in his book “It Takes a Criminal to Know One.” The book is still undergoing publication, but his artwork will be on display from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14 at DOS Coffee and Wine in St. Augustine.
DiManche said the exhibit is a precursor to his book.
“It will bring a lot of sensitive issues to light about the prison system and, really, the system as a whole,” he said. “It’s really stuff people are afraid of talking about.”
In between his artwork and writing, DiManche dedicated his prison sentence to defending unjustly wronged inmates, describing himself as a “whistle-blower.”
“Half the time inmates were too illiterate to address situations through the courts or a grievance process,” DiManche explained. “I took a lot of flak for defending those guys, and I learned a lot of crazy things about the internal system.”
Abuse and cover-ups didn’t happen just between the prisoners.
Murder, deceit, cutting corners — DiManche saw it all.
“It’s all public record,” DiManche said. “But they make it hard to find.”
Tatter said since his release, DiManche has excelled above and beyond in the citizen world. He lives in Palatka, studies at the Florida School of Arts on a full scholarship and completed his first semester with a 4.0 grade point average.
“He really is a go-getter. He’s not the typical person,” Tatter said. “He’s more driven than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Tatter started exchanging letters with DiManche halfway through his prison sentence when she took interest in his artwork and book. Before his release, she started a GoFundMe account to put DiManche back on his feet, and a week after he returned to civilian life, he earned his GED, found an apartment and enrolled in school.
“These are all things that are pretty much impossible for them to do when they get out of prison. They’re handed a $50 gift card and a bus ticket on release,” Tatter said. “The prison keeps them from success when they get out.”
Tatter was speechless when it came to describing his artwork. They’re pieces the community needs to see for themselves, she said.
“They’re reflections of what happened to him or someone he knew,” Tatter said. “They’re amazing.”
DiManche and Tatter will be at the exhibit Sunday to answer questions about prison reform and the system as a whole. Tatter said people can sign petitions and ask questions about life after crime. In the future, she hopes to encourage the Florida Legislature to decrease sentencing time and grant felons the opportunity to vote and get apartments on their own. She also wants to start a mentor program, which would allow driven inmates to work toward goals before their release.
“These people are just languishing in jail and doing anything with their time,” Tatter said.
She wants to change that.
For now, DiManche just wants the truth to be known.
“People want answers, and I’m ready to give it to them,” DiManche said. “There are a lot of people who want to solve these problems, but you can’t solve them until you know what you’re dealing with.”
IF YOU GO
When: Sunday, Aug. 14 | 5 to 7 p.m.
Where: DOS Coffee & Wine | 300 San Marco Ave.