William James Association & Prison Arts Project – History & Intro


In 1977, through the vision and efforts of Eloise Smith, the William James Association began the Prison Arts Project. After a 3-year pilot funded by various grants and donations, the California Department of Corrections adopted the program which developed into Arts-in-Corrections, which grew to be statewide in California’s state prisons.

This innovative arts program was funded by the Department of Corrections in 33 prisons throughout the state. It included a state-employed Institution Artist Facilitator and contracts with community-based arts organizations to support professional teaching artists. Institutional Artist Facilitators supplemented their own classes with artists to engage inmates in a variety of visual, literary and performing arts disciplines.

Professional artists from local communities have offered programs in visual arts such as drawing, painting, printmaking, poetry, playwriting and other literary arts, theater, dance, ceramics, sculpture, fine woodworking and guitar building, to mention only a few. We offer meaningful arts experiences in the belief that involvement in artistic discipline significantly and positively one’s view of themselves and the world around them.

The discipline acquired through participation in the arts translates to other aspects of an individual’s life. It satisfies the human need for creativity, recognition, respect and pride. In addition to art, music, theater and writing classes, inmates devote many more hours to self-directed study and skill development. AIC is a proven and effective program that engages inmates in positive and lasting personal change.

Sadly in 2003, funding was eliminated for the contract artists from local communities, and a limited program continued with the Institutional Artist Facilitator at each prison, until that position was eliminated in 2010 budget cuts. Fortunately, through funding from private sources, the William James Association continued to employ artists at San Quentin and maintain a living example of prison arts excellence. In fact, we bring artists teaching in Federal Prisons to San Quentin for an annual training conference.

In 2014, through the efforts of the California Arts Council, California Lawyers for the Arts, the Actor’s Gang, the William James Association and many other dedicated organizations and individuals, the Arts in Corrections program was provided with $2.5 million in funding for two years. We hope that his AIC Pilot Project will lead to permanent funding for AIC. The program is currently in place at 14 prisons throughout the state, utilizing a variety of local arts organizations to provide qualified artists in a variety of disciplines.

In addition to its work in California’s prisons, the WJA Prison Arts Project works on the local level to bring the benefits of fine arts instruction to isolated communities. Our Community Youth Arts Project provides art instruction to students of the Alternative High Schools of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. Over the last two years, we have also initiated a program to bring artists into Santa Cruz County Jails, reflecting the need to provide program to those jail inmates serving longer sentences under AB 109, the Realignment.


The impact of Arts-in-Corrections has been well-documented by university studies that quantitatively attest to the role of the arts in preventing violence within prisons as well as its role in reducing recidivism. A study conducted by faculty at San Jose University found that the quantifiable benefits of the program, including a documented relationship between AIC programming and reduced disciplinary action, resulted in benefits that significantly outweighed the costs of programming. A study completed by the California Department of Corrections showed that parole outcomes for inmates who had participated in AIC programming were significantly more favorable than the CDC total population for the same time periods.

  • 79% of the participants in the Arts in Corrections program stay out of prison, while only 42% of non-participants in the AIC program stay out – that’s a 37% reduction in recidivism. (from CDC Arts in Corrections recidivism study 1980-87)
  • Arts in Corrections participants, who had previous disciplinary actions, have 83% fewerdisciplinary actions in order to continue to participate. The result being a cost savings in CDCR staff time to handle disruptive activities while helping inmates to reduce their time of incarceration thru good behavior. (Brewster Report, 1983)

In addition to the documented quantitative outcomes of AIC, hundreds of prisoners participating in Arts-in-Corrections have given their personal testimonials that speak to their truly transformative encounters with the arts. One prisoner currently participating in the printmaking class at San Quentin described his artistic activity as more beneficial to his mental well-being than his required anger-management training. Participants have described their cathartic experiences of engaging with the arts, often citing their artistic activity as their first experiences of true self-discovery and feelings of self-worth. Many participants also felt that their arts classes created a unique safe haven, in which any racial/ethnic tensions, gang rivalries, and personal conflicts dissipated completely. Arts programming helped them to reconnect with family members and loved ones, discover and engage with their cultural heritage, and “use” their time in a productive manner, rather than simply “doing” their time.

The Arts in Corrections program also creates indirect return. Through service-based community art projects, it serves as an important bridge back to the cities and towns that surround our prisons, and builds public support for parolee re-integration initiatives. Over the years, Arts in Corrections has provided public arts projects in prisons, surrounding communities and state buildings including murals, sculptures and bus shelter posters, as well as victim restitution and anti-gang, anti-drug, anti-crime intervention materials. The sale of Arts in Corrections inmate artwork has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for victims’ restitution, child abuse councils, and other charities while giving inmates positive experiences as altruistic citizens.

Our Mission: The William James Association promotes work service in the arts, environment, education, and community development.                                                                                                                        

Our Beginnings: The Association’s name and founding inspiration come from William James, the American philosopher whose famous essay, “A Moral Equivalent of War,” proposed constructive work service rather than war service as a means of strengthening individuals and communities. Since its inception in 1973, the William James Association has developed a variety of programs consistent with this ideal by engaging individuals in meaningful work that addresses a community’s unmet needs.