Prison Arts Project

What is the Prison Arts Project?

P. Merts photo: Guitar Class at Salinas Valley SP, June 2015

Guitar Class at Salinas Valley SP, June 2015 | Photo by Peter Merts

The major program of the William James Association is the Prison Arts Project (PAP), created through the vision and efforts of Eloise Smith. A pilot project was set up in 1977 at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, with funding provided by the San Francisco Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.

Eloise Smith’s vision was based simply on the value of providing all individuals with the most meaningful art experience possible; in her words, “that mysterious life-enhancing process we call the arts, a realm in which patient application and vivid imagination so often produce magic.”

The success of this initial program led to the formation of Arts-in-Corrections, an administrative office within the California Department of Corrections, which oversees the staffing of artist-facilitators at all prisons in California. Unfortunately, in January 2003, all Arts-in-Corrections artists’ contracts were terminated as the result of a budget crisis in California state government.

Through some limited funding from private sources, the William James Association has been able to hire a few professional artists to teach at San Quentin State Prison and the women’s unit of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

Philosophy

Book making workshop at San QuentinBringing the arts to institutionalized individuals is based in the belief that participation in the artistic process significantly affects a person’s self-esteem and general outlook on the world. Art workshops teach self-discipline, problem-solving, and concentration through absorption in a specific creative endeavor.
The skills acquired through participation in the arts are translated to other aspects of one’s life. Art satisfies an individual’s need for creativity, self-expression, recognition, and self-respect.

“There are general feelings of hostility and hopelessness in prisons today and it is getting worse with overcrowding. . . Art workshops and similar programs help take us out of this atmosphere and we become like any other free person expressing our talents. Being in prison is the final ride downhill unless one can resist the things around him and learn to function in a society which he no longer has any contact with. Arts programs for many of us may be the final salvation of our minds from prison insanity. It’s contact with the best of the human race. It is something that says that we, too, are still valuable.”

– a prison inmate

Prison hall

The prison system punishes negative behaviors but offers little to replace them. The capacity for personal change is great, although daunting within a repressive environment and culture of extreme power imbalance, racism, segregation and manipulation. The Prison Arts Project creates a sanctuary where inmates are treated with respect, courtesy and an openness to their unique expressions as creative human beings.

Research

Please visit our updated Research page.