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Arts-in-Corrections: California's Creative Response to a Broken Prison System

Prison inmates work on a mural as part of a Project PAINT art workshop at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
Inmates work on a mural as part of a Project PAINT art workshop at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. | Photo: Peter Merts.

In the early years of his incarceration, Guillermo Willie acknowledged, art was the farthest thing from his mind. “My thoughts were 'OK, I'm going to get some heroin. I'm going to get some speed. I'm going to get some drugs,'” recalled the Los Osos man, who spent 38 years in prison for assault and his role in the death of a fellow inmate before his release in 2008. “My intent was to be a bum, a criminal. I had no thoughts of making it out of there.”

But as he delved deeper into drawing and painting, his attitude began to shift.

“There was a length of time where I was reflecting, going inside myself, [thinking] 'What am I doing with my life?'” he recalled. “I wanted to be an artist and I knew what I was doing was a limitation on me being able to paint. I knew I needed to make a change.”

Today, Willie, a visual artist and actor, is one of the numerous success stories of the Arts-in-Corrections program, a partnership between the California Arts Council and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, that aims to combat recidivism, nurture rehabilitation and foster safe conditions in state prisons, county jails and juvenile detention centers. By introducing inmates to everything from dance to drumming to drama, the program's supporters believe, Arts-in-Corrections can inspire deep and lasting change.

A prison inmate at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego participates in a still life drawing exercise conducted by Project PAINT.
An inmate at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego participates in a still life drawing exercise conducted by Project PAINT. | Photo: Peter Merts.

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“While art is being used as the tool for teaching, these classroom experiences are encouraging a whole range of experiences,” said Caitlin Fitzwater, communications director for the California Arts Council. “We’re talking about overcoming social barriers, overcoming economic barriers, learning sensitivity, intellectual flexibility, creativity...”

Workshops and classes offered by specially trained professional artists, she continued, “help inmates by reducing staff conflict. They relieve stress and encourage self-confidence, motivation [and] reliability, even simple things like time management and taking initiative -- all things that translate into being deeply impactful rehabilitative skills and qualities.”

According to Kristina Khokhobashvili, public information officer at the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the aim of Arts-in-Corrections has been the same from the start. “The No. 1 goal is public safety. We don’t want people who get out of prison to commit crimes, re-victimize people and go back to prison.”

“We’ve proven over the years that you can’t just lock someone away and not give them any hope or anything constructive to do with their time or teach them a trade and expect them to do just fine when they’re done with their time,” Khokhobashvili said. “It just doesn’t work. They can’t get a job. They can’t connect with their family.”

That’s why the department offers plenty of options for inmates open to rehabilitation. Defy Ventures, for instance, works with budding entrepreneurs behind bars, teaching them how to develop leadership skills, improve organization and pitch business ideas to investors. The Last Mile teaches computer coding to incarcerated techies, and inmates working with Canine Companions for Independence train service dogs.

Each rehabilitative program, Khokhobashvili said, represents “one more skill, one more outlet that an inmate can have” once he or she is released.

An inmate participates in a theater workshop conducted by The Actors' Gang of Los Angeles at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.
An inmate performs for an audience that includes Tim Robbins, artistic director of The Actors' Gang in Los Angeles, at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco in 2014. | Photo: Peter Merts.

Established by the California State Legislature in June 1980, Arts-in-Corrections was modeled after the Prison Arts Program launched in 1977 at Vacaville's California Medical Facility under the direction of the nonprofit William James Association, according to a 1983 report by Larry Brewster, a public policy professor at the University of San Francisco's School of Management. The program was initially “designed to improve the quality of the prison experience for both inmates and staff, as well as encourage better institution-community relations through community service art projects and concert series,” Brewster wrote in his introduction to “An Evaluation of the Arts-in-Corrections Program of the California Department of Corrections.”

His report evaluated the effectiveness of Arts-in-Corrections at four institutions -- California Medical Facility, Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy, San Quentin State Prison and Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. Like Brewster's 2014 report, “California Prison Arts: A Quantitative Evaluation,” it found that benefits to inmates, staff and taxpayers -- ranging from improved self-confidence and self-discipline to a reduction of institutional violence -- far outweighed the costs.

In 1982, a total of 1,116 inmates at those facilities enrolled in 7,028 hours of individual and group instruction in “the visual, literary, performing and media and fine craft disciplines.”

Participation in Arts-in-Corrections grew steadily over the years. In the 1986-1987 fiscal year, more than 300 Arts-in Corrections instructors provided 36,000-plus hours of instruction to 8,196 program participants, according to Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

About a decade later, in fiscal year 1998-1999, 12 to 14 percent of the inmates incarcerated in 33 prisons and three camps -- as many as 21,621 people -- had access to Arts-in-Corrections during leisure hours, Thornton said.

Artworks by prison inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility are displayed at the Oceanside Museum of Art as part of a Project PAINT show.
Artworks by prison inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility are displayed at the Oceanside Museum of Art as part of a Project PAINT show. | Photo: Peter Merts.

But budget cuts crippled Arts-in-Corrections in 2003 and led to its complete closure in 2010. “State funding was not present for some time,” Fitzwater said, although some organizations continued to provide services at correctional facilities via volunteering and fundraising.

“They wanted to do so because they had the proven results of their work that was still continuing,” she explained. “There are so many stories of inmates who transformed their lives as the result of former programs. Those were voices advocating for a return.”

California legislators also rallied in support of Arts-in-Corrections as “a very cost-effective way to meet the state's public safety needs and priorities,” Fitzwater said. In 2014, the state corrections department dedicated a total of $2.5 million to revive Arts-in-Corrections as a two-year pilot program administered by the California Arts Council.

In February, the council announced Arts-in-Corrections' adoption as an ongoing program for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. And in June, the program received a $4 million boost from the state budget that will enable it to extend programming to all 34 state-run adult correctional facilities in California.

With its reinvigorated investment in Arts-in-Corrections, “The department is now putting its money where its mouth is,” Khokhobashvili said.

Arts-in-Corrections has contracted with 10 organizations to provide rehabilitative arts services to inmates. InsideOUT Writers, for instance, teaches creative writing to young people serving time at four Los Angeles-area juvenile detention centers and Los Angeles County's Men's Central Jail, while The Actors' Gang provides theatrical arts training with an emphasis on commedia dell'arte techniques at five Southern California correctional facilities under the leadership of actor, director and artistic director Tim Robbins.

Tim Robbins, artistic director of The Actors' Gang in Los Angeles, conducts a workshop at  the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.
Tim Robbins, artistic director of The Actors' Gang in Los Angeles, conducts a workshop at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

Santa Cruz's William James Association, which provides arts instruction to at-risk youth, prisoners and people on parole and probation, has partnered with a handful of groups throughout the state.

They range from Santa Maria’s Poetic Justice Project, which works with formerly incarcerated people to produce “bold, original theatre,” to Project PAINT: The Prison Arts IniTiative, which provides collaborative projects and visual arts and fine crafts workshops to inmates at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. Works by incarcerated artists have been exhibited at The Glashaus art gallery in San Diego, MiraCosta College in Oceanside and the Oceanside Museum of Art.

Laura Pecenco, founding director of Project PAINT, said she was inspired to create her organization in 2013 as a graduate student researching masculinity and creativity behind bars.

“These public spaces in a prison very much encourage, sometimes even require, violence. They require a macho attitude from a lot of the men,” said Pecenco, now an assistant professor at San Diego Miramar College. “Some place where [that behavior] is not rewarded is an art studio... Being a good artist is often seen as 'How deep can you go?' That's a notion that's counter to what you tend to see in a prison yard, where it's about who is the biggest, who is the baddest.”

“Art allows for a different masculinity,” she continued. “You get to take on this label of ‘artist’ and it really changes the criteria by which you are judged.”

A prison inmate paints a mural as part of a Project PAINT art workshop at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego
An inmate paints a mural as part of a Project PAINT art workshop at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. | Photo: Peter Merts.

As an example of the transformative power of art, she cited San Diego luthier Robert Vincent, who crafts classical guitars. He found a new identity behind bars after he was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for his role in a deadly brawl.

Prior to prison, Vincent's only professional art experience consisted of painting murals on custom cars. The closest he had come to woodworking was high school shop class.

But while serving time at Deuel Vocational Institution, he encountered classical guitar for the first time.

“I sat in front of that guitar, and I was blown away by the sound of that box of wood,” Vincent recalled. “Pardon the pun, but it struck a chord with me and I've never looked back.” He enrolled in a guitar-making class taught by Ben Lomond luthier Kenny Hill and “went crazy studying and practicing” his craft.

Vincent gave the first guitar he made to his two young sons for Christmas. Later, Harry Belafonte commissioned the luthier to make an instrument for Carlos Santana. “It really made me feel good,” Vincent said, to be able to tell his kids, “Their dad’s a guitar maker.”

Vincent, who was released in 2005, draws a direct connection between his rehabilitation and his involvement in Arts-in-Corrections. In prison, “I had to really take a hard look at what led me to that place. It wasn’t just one bad mistake. It was lifestyle choices,” Vincent said.

Actors with Santa Maria's Poetic Justice Project perform the play "In the Kitchen with a Knife" at Alcatraz
Actors with Santa Maria's Poetic Justice Project perform the play "In the Kitchen with a Knife" at Alcatraz Island in 2014. | Photo: Peter Merts.

For Vincent, the meditative process of shaping a custom instrument served as a form of therapy. “Nobody sees all the work that goes on on the inside” of a guitar, he said, adding that, in a similar matter, “I was working on the inside of me.”

That kind of introspection is an essential part of the journey from convicted felon to reformed member of society, Khokhobashvili said. “It is a way for the offender to look at the reason behind criminal thinking, to address the impact of the crime he or she committed, to look at the impact on the victim and the victim's family,” she said.

Art also encourages inmates to look outward, the public information officer added. “No matter what you’re doing in art, you’re going out of your comfort zone,” Khokhobashvili said. “These guys are doing things they didn’t think they’d be able to do, hanging out with people they didn’t think they'd be able to hang out with.”

In an art workshop setting, “The tension of people’s different lifestyles... dissipates completely. It can’t happen in that room,” said actor, writer and director Leah Joki, who spent 14 years as an arts facilitator at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe and a decade at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in Lancaster. She now works as an arts mentor with The Actors’ Gang and Los Angeles’ Strindberg Laboratory theater company.

The Strindberg Laboratory theater company in Los Angeles conducts a theater workshop at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in Lancaster
An inmate participates in a theater workshop conducted by Los Angeles' Strindberg Laboratory at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in Lancaster in 2014. | Photo: Peter Merts.

“To be in a play, you need to be responsible. You need to be disciplined. You need to learn how to communicate in a more effective way. You learn how to empathize with people’s situations,” said Joki, who recently teamed up with Poetic Justice Project on the original production “Time Will Tell." The play, which premiered in June, features six actors telling stories about their experiences behind bars and on the outside, in their own words. 

Through theater, “People learn skills that they don't really understand they're learning,” Joki said. “You're not trying to teach them to be an actor. You're trying to teach them to be in the world.”

Music can serve a similar function, said Wayne Kramer, who drew on his personal experiences behind bars to co-found Jail Guitar Doors USA in 2008. In the 1970s, the former MC5 guitarist served nearly three years at Kentucky's Lexington Federal Prison for selling cocaine to undercover federal agents; his ordeal was immortalized in the song “Jail Guitar Doors” by The Clash.

An American offshoot of the Jail Guitar Doors organization started by English folk-punk troubadour Billy Bragg, Jail Guitar Doors USA, which is based in Los Angeles, provides access to guitars and guitar lessons to inmates in more than 70 American prisons, including about 20 in California.

Jail Guitar Doors USA volunteers
Jail Guitar Doors USA volunteers enter Los Angeles County's Men's Central Jail to conduct a music workshop. | Photo: Courtesy of Wayne Kramer.

While music provided a means of escape during his time in prison, Kramer made it clear that “We're not gifting people guitars to fiddle away the time.”

“The guitars represent a challenge,” he said. “The message is that they believe in you. They believe that given the right tools, given the right incentives, you want to change for the better.”

“Art teaches one the secret of how to work,” Kramer continued. “Many people serving time never figure out how to work, how to stay in one place and focus on one task to completion. When you pick up a guitar, when you start a poem or start a sculpture, you’re motivated by something within you to express yourself.”

Artistic expression doesn't just change the way inmates see themselves, the musician said. It transforms the way the world views them as well.

“People in prison live in a world that inculcates bitterness and violence and racism and defeat and, ultimately, meaninglessness. You have no value in this world. You’re a case number. You're a bed. You're a crime,” Kramer explained. “Being creative is a great argument against that meaninglessness.”

According to Khokhobashvili, the benefits of Arts-in-Correction continue long after inmates are released: They end up with a lifelong hobby that encourages creativity, facilitates self-reflection and fosters positive relationships with others.

“When you’re feeling a little down, isn’t it better to grab your guitar or your sketchbook than do drugs or hurt somebody?” she asked. “This may not be a profession for you but you have this outlet for the rest of your life.”

Jail Guitar Doors enters California Rehabilitation Center in Norco
Jail Guitar Doors USA enters California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. | Photo: Courtesy of Wayne Kramer.
project_paint_at_donovan_state_prison_-_2014_x4.jpg
Inmates at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego participate in a still life drawing exercise conducted by Project PAINT. | Photo: Peter Merts.
Prison inmates appear in the play "Redemption in Our State of Blues" at California Rehabilitation Facility, Los Angeles County in Lancaster as part of a Strindberg Laboratory theater workshop.
Prison inmates appear in the play "Redemption in Our State of Blues" at California Rehabilitation Facility, Los Angeles County in Lancaster as part of a Strindberg Laboratory theater workshop. | Photo: Peter Merts.
Prison inmates appear in the play "Redemption in Our State of Blues" at California Rehabilitation Facility, Los Angeles County in Lancaster as part of a Strindberg Laboratory theater workshop.
Inmates appear in the play "Redemption in Our State of Blues" at California Rehabilitation Facility, Los Angeles County in Lancaster as part of a Strindberg Laboratory theater workshop. | Photo: Peter Merts.
Prison inmates appear in the play "Redemption in Our State of Blues" at California Rehabilitation Facility, Los Angeles County in Lancaster as part of a Strindberg Laboratory theater workshop.
Prison inmates appear in the play "Redemption in Our State of Blues" at California Rehabilitation Facility, Los Angeles County in Lancaster as part of a Strindberg Laboratory theater workshop. | Photo: Peter Merts.
Prison inmates appear in the play "Redemption in Our State of Blues" at California Rehabilitation Facility, Los Angeles County in Lancaster as part of a Strindberg Laboratory theater workshop.
Prison inmates appear in the play "Redemption in Our State of Blues" at California Rehabilitation Facility, Los Angeles County in Lancaster as part of a Strindberg Laboratory theater workshop. | Photo: Peter Merts.
Prison inmates participate in a Playwrights Project theater workshop at Richard Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego
Inmates participate in a Playwrights Project theater workshop at Richard Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. | Photo: Peter Merts.

Top image: Inmates appear in the play "Redemption in Our State of Blues" at California Rehabilitation Facility, Los Angeles County in Lancaster as part of a Strindberg Laboratory theater workshop. | Photo by Peter Merts.

 

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