Art Class Could Keep People From Going Back to Prison

A California program hopes to decrease recidivism by offering inmates creative classes.
Music class at Pleasant Valley State Prison. (Photo: Peter Merts/Flickr)
Aug 15, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jillian Frankel is an editorial intern for TakePart. She is the features and student life editor at the UCLA campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin.

Drumming, dance lessons, painting and theater classes—thanks to Arts-in-Corrections, a joint effort of the California Arts Council and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, those are just some of the artistic offerings available to inmates at 19 of California’s 34 state prisons.

The project, which launched this summer after a two-year pilot, aims to reduce recidivism rates, decrease violence in prisons, and improve inmates’ self-confidence before they are released.

RELATED: At This Library, Story Time Doesn’t End Because Dad’s Locked Up

“More than 90 percent of all people in prison right now are going to get out. At some point, they’re going to be somebody’s neighbor,” Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, told TakePart. “Wouldn’t you want them to be transformed from whatever they were that took them into prison into who they really could be if they were rehabilitated and had a new outlook on the future?”

The California Arts Council is responsible for managing the process of putting out requests to the arts community, taking in proposals, reviewing them, and then choosing providers to teach classes. So far it has partnered with 10 organizations, including The Actors’ Gang, a Los Angeles nonprofit theater group led by actor Tim Robbins.

The Actors’ Gang at California Institute for Women. (Photo: Peter Merts/Flickr)

Offering art classes to people who are incarcerated can be difficult because prisons aren’t designed for outsiders to enter and host private programs.

“Prisons, by their very nature, are hard places to do work in,” Watson said. “It’s not like setting up for a theater performance at a local college or here in the local community theater.”

Prison staff appreciate outside organizations that exist to help benefit inmates, but their first priority is to ensure the day-to-day safety of themselves and the inmates they work with, Watson said. In addition, it can be challenging to find artists who are willing to be trained to teach at a prison and who can make the time commitment necessary to adjust to such a learning environment. However, Watson has found that those who teach the classes are eager to return.

Drawing class at Pleasant Valley State Prison. (Photo: Peter Merts/Flickr)

“It takes a very special individual, a type of artist who not only wants to share their art form but who gets that it’s not an easy environment to enter and to come back to and care about,” Watson said. “Generally, the report we get back from people who participated is that just as they hope to transform the prisoners, it absolutely transforms the artist.”

Nearly two-thirds of people released from prison return within three years, both nationally and in California.

Watson said an earlier version of the Arts-in-Corrections program was started in the late 1970s but had to be dramatically reduced in the early 2000s because of extreme state budget cuts. After a pilot that ran from June 2014 to June 2016 and served 2,000 inmates, the current program fully launched. This year’s $3.5 million budget for the program is funded by the California Department of Corrections and the California State Legislature. Funding is expected to be $8 million per year by 2018.

Despite the positive feedback from both inmates and instructors, Watson said the program has received criticism from those who misunderstand its purpose and believe prisoners deserve to be strictly punished.

“If we turned our back totally and only dealt in a mind-set of punishment, then what kind of people would [be released]?” Watson said. “These people are going to come back into somebody’s life, and how short-sighted it would be if all we were thinking about was punishment and grinding people down and making them ‘pay’ for their crime and not thinking about the power of redemption and rehabilitation and change in lives.”