I was a participant in WJA’s Prison Arts Project (aka Arts in Corrections) for six years (2003-2009) in San Quentin Prison. That was eleven years, 2 prisons, a four-and-a-half-hour board of paroles hearing, and three years on parole ago. I am about to hit my five year mark being off of parole and I have been working for the William James Association for the past three years.
Looking back, I understand what that little room on the upper yard with the words Arts in Corrections painted above the door provided for me as an artist, as an individual, and as a human being. It was a place in the prison where I forgot I was in prison for four hours on Friday. The only other place I experienced that feeling is when I was in the sweatlodge. In the art studio, I could let my walls down and just be an artist among other artists. Race, religion, creed, factions, politics and beliefs was not a factor, the only thing that mattered was creating art. People I would have never interacted with became a part of my community, a source of support and friendship. I have personally witnessed riots and potential acts of violence avoided because a person in group knew another person of the other group through the art program and that situation was solved through words and shared understanding.
If those walls were not taken down in that AIC room a totally different outcome would have occurred. In that room where I was referred to as Henry and not J-80928, showed me that I was not worthless, that I was not seen as a danger, that I was seen as an accomplished/seasoned artist. I was incarcerated but I was more than that, I was an artist.
I gained a healthy outlet for difficult times, self-confidence, self-awareness, self-worth, empathy, patience, purpose, focus and vision. I was shown humanity, was shown professionalism, was shown dedication and was given a place of peace, laughter, and community. I would not be the man I am today without having the arts in my life.
-Henry Frank, WJA Programs and Communication Assistant