Arts-In-Corrections Program Returns to California Prisons


After an extended period of abeyance, California's Arts-in-Corrections (AIC) program, which offers "direct instruction and guidance in the creation of and participation in visual, performing, literary and media arts" to state prison inmates, was officially reinstated this month. AIC was funded by the California Arts Council until 2003, when a 94 percent cut in the state arts budget effectively disabled its continued backing of the program, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) let the coordinated statewide program lapse in 2010, although some individual prison arts projects have remained active. Now, the CDCR is reviving the AIC with an allocation of $2.5 million from its own budget over two fiscal years and has teamed up with the Arts Council to co-administer the program.

"We don't want people coming back to prison after they're released," explains CDCR spokeswoman Kristina Khokhobashvili, "and arts programs are proven to be rehabilitative. When inmates have the chance to express themselves, they direct their energy in a positive way and institutions become safer places for both prison staffs and other inmates. Plus once inmates get out and start looking for a job, the communication, collaboration and other skills that these arts programs help them develop come in handy anywhere."

Two studies by University of San Francisco Public and Nonprofit Administration Professor Larry Brewster, published almost 30 years apart, attest to the rehabilitative value and other benefits that the AIC and programs like it provide to participating inmates. His more recent paper on the subject, Qualitative Study of the California Arts-in-Corrections Program (2012), asserts that "rehabilitation is possible if [prison inmates] are given opportunities to realize their humanity" and that AIC has helped inmates to "earn self-respect, human dignity and self-esteem..., [which] only a very few [had] felt that they possessed...before their incarceration and participation in the program." Many of the released AIC program participants whom Brewster talked to had even ended up "earning a part or all of their living through their art" after leaving prison, becoming "successful artists by any measure."

Theater Workshop at the California Institute for Women | Photo: Peter Merts

Theater Workshop at the California Institute for Women | Photo: Peter Merts

Though all the funding for AIC in these first two years is provided by CDCR, the Arts Council has been charged with running the statewide program. "They're the experts," says Khokhobashvili, "so they've been responsible for choosing the arts organizations that participate in the program and determining how much funding each one gets." The Arts Council's involvement, she also points out, has allowed the range of arts initiatives in state prisons to expand considerably beyond what CDCR has been able to provide on its own since 2003.

Arts Council Chairman Wylie Aitken affirms that since "Corrections obviously had some funds available that we don't have," the two agencies started talking to one another. Once CDCR decided to allocate the $2.5 million to AIC, "they came to us because we knew how to do it, we knew who the people who could do it were. We'd already had a successful track record, which allowed us to engage participants in the program who'd also had a successful track record."

Printmaking class -- carving a linoleum block, San Quentin State Prison. | Photo: Peter Merts

Certainly no organization has been more dedicated to providing arts programs to prison inmates for a longer period than the William James Association, whose privately funded Prison Arts Project, launched in 1977, was an early model for and precursor to the AIC. "It's been such a huge collaborative effort to get this going again after it was offline for 10 years," enthuses the Association's Executive Director Laurie Brooks, citing the additional political involvement of California Lawyers for the Arts, the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board, the state legislature's Joint Committee on the Arts and other influential supporters. "It's just amazing to me."

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Seven different arts organizations have been selected to participate in the AIC's initial two-year program, operating in 14 different California state prisons. One of these groups, the Actors' Gang theater company (whose artistic director, Tim Robbins, starred in the classic 1994 prison drama "The Shawshank Redemption" and wrote and directed "Dead Man Walking"), has already been operating and funding its own Actors' Gang Prison Project since 2006. The James Association is also providing a mentorship and technical assistance umbrella for several less experienced arts groups that would not have qualified for AIC funding on their own initiative to undertake projects. Other contracts have been awarded to the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Dance Kaiso, the Marin Shakespeare Company, the Muckenthaler Cultural Center and the San Jose Rep.

Sabra Williams, Director of the Prison Project and Tim Robbins, Artistic Director of the Actors' Gang. Theater Workshop at the California Rahabilitation Center: Norco | Photo: Peter Merts

One AIC program shepherded by the James Association which has already gotten started is Project PAINT, led by UCSD Ph.D. candidate Laura Pecenco, an initiative for inmates at Donovan State Prison in San Diego to collaborate in creating mobile murals to be displayed in each of the institution's five visiting rooms. "It's a great collaborative project, and we really wanted it to be inmate-led," Pecenco says. "The men have come up with the common theme of 'Pathways,' and we've got 20 guys working on these different murals. It's been a great experience getting everyone to agree on different ideas. It's something their families are going to see, a backdrop for family photos, so it represents something more than an art project to them."

With the funding from AIC, Pecenco says, the project will be expanding to allow artists to come in and offer workshops that offer the inmates a chance to learn and experiment with a broader range of artistic techniques. "I want to pair that with a lecture series, too," she continues, "which I think is particularly important, because art sometimes seems 'out there' or 'elite' for some people. This would allow inmates to get an understanding of art even if they think they're bad at drawing stick figures or something like that."

Improv singing class, San Quentin State Prison. | Photo: Peter Merts

Theater Workshop at the California Institute for Women | Photo: Peter Merts

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center, based in Fullerton, will be arranging for a series of theater artists to undertake "mini-residencies" at prisons in California's somewhat isolated Central Valley. "Other than Fresno," the Center's Executive Director, Zoot Velasco points out, "every metropolitan center where artists would come from is at least two, or for some of the prisons even five, hours away. Making that drive every day really wouldn't work, so we suggested that we get artists to go up for two-week stints on a kind of tour of the [region's] five prisons. Then, after they leave, there'll be a two-week break for the inmates to practice what they've learned, and then another artist will go up and then another two-week break. And then after the third artist's two-week residency, they'll do a performance for their friends and family and staff members and visitors." Velasco himself worked at prisons under the AIC's previous incarnation and observed that "the inmates really need the pressure of knowing there's a show coming up in order to hone their skills. They also really loved to perform for their families, and for their families to see them doing something positive was a really good thing."

When he was involved with the program before, Velasco recalls, he learned that violence inside the prisons where artists were working tended to go way down. "The wardens, who were these very [conservative] people generally, really loved our program because they saw it was a way to reduce trouble and violent incidents in their prisons. I even remember when we did our very first play at Wasco State Prison, four of our guys who were part of this play were what they call in prison 'shot callers,' leaders of [rival] prison gangs. And they put an edict out that as long as the play was happening, there should be no trouble in the yard because they didn't want their rehearsals to get canceled. So we went, like, six months with no lockdowns, which may be a record. It was pretty phenomenal to see that the play had been having that much of an effect on the yard."

Arts Council Chairman Aitken is confident that AIC will be demonstrably successful enough to ensure its continued funding beyond the initial two-year mandate. He also hopes that the agency will soon be able to fund additional, comparable prison arts programs in county and large city jails around the state, where many less violent prisoners have been transferred in recent years under California's "realignment" program to alleviate state prison overcrowding. (The AIC program supported by CDCR only operates in state prison facilities, not the county jails.) "There's a lot of interest from sheriffs in implementing such a program, so we're hopeful that, with some increased funding for the Arts Council, we'll be able to form the same types of partnerships with the counties and even some of the larger cities that we have with Corrections on the state level."

Theater Workshop at the California Rahabilitation Center: Norco | Photo: Peter Merts

Watch our mini-doc on the realities of the U.S. prison systems through visual form:


Poetic Justice Project Finds Inspiration Behind Bars
The only theater company of its kind in California, The Poetic Justice Project offers formerly incarcerated actors a chance to share their stories on stage.

'Prison Landscapes' and the Interior World of the Incarcerated
Alyse Emdur explores the hand-crafted murals produced by prison inmates, which show whimsical worlds conjured from the inmates' imaginations.

The Odyssey Project: Transforming Lives of Incarcerated Youth Through Theater
The Odyssey Project pairs UCSB College students with young men from a minimum security detention facility to recreate Homer's "The Odyssey."

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Top Image: Actors' Gang Prison Project | Photo: Peter Merts.

About the Author

Lyle Zimskind covers art and culture for Los Angeles magazine and in addition to KCET Artbound.
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