Arts In Corrections – Pilot Project

Yard_METhe WJA Prison Arts Project, in collaboration with the California Lawyers for the Arts, is undertaking a $65,000 arts-in-corrections initiative testing the benefits of arts programs for incarcerated persons. It has been launched at several state prisons with funding support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and several private foundations.

With this seed funding we are coordinating  a series of 8 to 12-week courses at five California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) sites across the state.  Lawrence G. Brewster, Professor of Public Administration at the University of San Francisco School of Management, is leading a formal evaluation of the demonstration project.

The impetus for the initiative is “to demonstrate to the public and to our legislators that arts-in-corrections programs offer tangible benefits to society, while saving the state money through lower disciplinary incidents and recidivism,” according to Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts.   Demonstration sites include California State Prison, Sacramento; California Rehabilitation Center, Norco; Correctional Training Facility, Soledad; Pleasant Valley State Prison, Coalinga; and San Quentin Prison, San Rafael.

“These art programs offer inmates an opportunity to develop discipline and work skills, while learning to express themselves in constructive ways.  It’s exciting to work with Dr. Brewster and California Lawyers for the Arts to study and document the attitudinal and behavioral changes we have been observing for decades,” said Laurie Brooks, Executive Director of the William James Association.

Support for the initiative has been building, with grants from the San Francisco Foundation, the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation.  California Arts Advocates has been working with initiative partners to raise the awareness of state legislators of the value of arts-in-corrections.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation affirmed its support of efforts to rebuild the infrastructure of AIC programs:  “We are well aware of the benefits of the arts as part of the matrix of rehabilitation programs in our State correctional facilities, and have made a commitment to offer the services of sponsors to assist with arts programs,” wrote C. Elizabeth Siggins, Director of Rehabilitative Programs.

Tim Virga, Warden at California State Prison, Sacramento offered his unqualified support:  “I believe the new demonstration projects give the men who live in this institution a way to use their time in a constructive manner.  When I started in this department in 1983, it had a lively and robust hobby craft and arts-in-corrections program.  Over the years budget cuts hit, and these were some of the first programs to go.  We’ve always worked to keep arts programs up and running here at New Folsom.  They lead to less violence and fewer problems for staff.  When outside instructors come to listen and help inmates refine their skills, they always appreciate having access to these classes because they know how rare they are.”

Past studies of arts-in-correction programs have shown favorable outcomes.  A path breaking 1983 study led by Brewster and commissioned by the William James Association found that AIC programs were responsible for measurable improvement in inmate attitudes, and a significant reduction in incident reports and institutional tension.  A concurrent analysis found that the value of all these social benefits exceeded program costs by nearly 30%.  In addition, a CDCR study of outcomes for parolees for the period of 1980-1987 found that, two years after release, 69.2% of AIC parolees had not returned to state prison, compared to 42% for others.  In June 2010, several months after the complete elimination of state AIC programs, the state’s three-year recidivism rate stood at 63.7% (CDCR Office of Research, October 2012).

In 2009, Brewster conducted a series of interviews with former arts-in-correction participants, which are summarized in his recent book, Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons.  Stories of profound change were not uncommon.  For example, Robert Vincent learned how to craft a guitar while serving a 16-year sentence at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy.  That one skill helped him re-forge his connection with his two sons while incarcerated, and led to a successful career as an independent guitar maker after his release.

Henry Montgomery, who participated in a Marin Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet at San Quentin shortly before his release in July 2012, said that being involved in the arts gave him more courage to confront life’s challenges:  “I learned how to push myself more, and to be in touch with my own emotions, with how I feel at this moment.”  Montgomery’s involvement in the arts at San Quentin also led to numerous offers of support for projects he hoped to undertake following his release.  Most recently that support materialized through an offer of studio time to work on recording a CD.