Acting on the conviction that the fine arts enrich, heal, and unite communities, the William James Association has brought exceptional artists into prisons throughout California for forty years. The Prison Arts Project provides meaningful arts experiences for the many thousands of men, women and youth in our criminal justice system.
We know that the practice of making art cultivates transformation and improves lives. It also returns parolees to our communities with a sense of discipline and self-worth that allows them to create new lives as contributing citizens.
The Prison Arts Project conceives of prison arts activities as not only affecting the individual but as affecting the entire prison community, families of artists who are incarcerated and the communities beyond, those to which 90% people who are experiencing incarceration will return.
Over our four-decade+ history of bringing professional artists into California prisons to work with artists experiencing incarceration, we have observed profound changes in how participants see themselves and the people that they live and work with, as well as substantive changes in how other members of the prison community see the changes in them.
Here are statements from individuals who have benefited directly from participating in the WJA Prison Arts Project:
“When you are doing your art, you don’t care if you are locked down… You are focused, able to shut out the noise and fear of prison life. ..That’s what the Arts-in-Corrections and my art gave to me, another way to be free; to reach our calm state of mind.” ~ Jake
“The Prison Arts Project helped me discover my creative spirit and, in the process, sent me down the path of discovery. The program filled the void in my soul like cool water on the hot and barren landscape that is prison.” Spoon Jackson, Poet
“The Prison Arts Project has contributed to bringing the wonders of the art world inside the institutions and inside the lives of our offenders. The exposure has served to develop an appreciation that transcends into a respect of others, community and property. The life lessons learned through this newfound appreciation contribute to positive behaviors and a safer environment for both the offenders and staff within California prisons.” ~ Scott Kernan, Secretary (retired) CDCR
“Once a week I sit at a table surrounded by the dregs of society. I sit with them and bare my soul through the words I’ve written, awaiting their judgment. Even though these men are criminals I have discovered all of them are intelligent, thoughtful ..Their voices are the ones you don’t hear in polite society ..These men, who speak from experience of broken homes, abusive relationships, and of life lived on the gritty streets inhabited by gangbangers, drug addicts, hookers and hustlers have helped me to grow as a person, and to expand my horizons …That’s what this program means to me; a chance to redeem myself in the eyes of society, and in my own.” ~ R. F. Gilliam, a member of the San Quentin Brothers in Pen writing circle
“The program gave me some of the tools, discipline, and insight necessary for me to become the person I want to be.” ~ Frank, art student quoted in Paths of Discovery.
“One of the greatest things about the Arts-in-Corrections program at DVI was the annual art sale in support of the San Joaquin County Child Abuse Prevention Council. It helped some of the prison staff and community leaders to better understand and value what we were doing in the program.” ~ Dan, art student quoted in Paths of Discovery
“You know prison time can be a monster, it is oppressive. That changed for me while I was in my art classes, or working on my art in my cell. Time never went as fast as it did during those times when I was focused not on me, or my surroundings, but on my art.” ~ Russ
“I love art, it was nice to feel like a regular person again for a little while instead of a caged bird with an S number.” ~ Anonymous jail arts participant, Santa Cruz County
“I would like to take this time to give account of what I have personally witnessed inside the mental-health cellblock during my time facilitating the art classes. I have witnessed individuals who arrive tense and high-strung, become relaxed and calm while making art. I have heard individuals, who refused to talk or interact when they came to class, open up and discuss their work and creative process to the whole group at the end of the session. I have seen individuals work collaboratively on projects with others, and voluntarily to help others in the class contrary to the predominant culture inside of self-protection and isolation. I have watched spontaneous applause erupt after an inmate provided narrative commentary during a discussion. I have seen inmates emote about inner aspects of their lives in relation to their art content choices. And I have been impressed by extraordinary positive interactions between correctional officers and inmates as a result of the trusting atmosphere accompanying the art workshops.” ~ T S Anand, Jail Arts Instructor
“Arts programming improves inmate behavior which increases safety for inmates and staff while they’re in-custody. Arts programming also teaches inmates to engage their brains and work in new creative ways, expanding and encouraging new perspectives, ways of viewing the world, and of relating to each other, officers and the community at large.” ~ Cynthia Chase, Inmate Programs Manager, Santa Cruz County Jail
[Jasmine] attributes her renewed will to live to the Arts-in-Corrections program and to Roberto Chavez, the artist-facilitator. “He was instrumental in helping me and other artist-inmates fine their creative inner core while we served time. Art in prison helped to shut out the dehumanizing aspects of prison life; to focus on the joy of creating and experiencing my inner spirit, core.”
“Anyone who is interested in the practice of arts-in-corrections in America and who does the research should have no doubt that these programs stack up with and outperform any other treatment methodology working in the arena of corrections, be it education, vocational training, restorative justice, drug treatment, you name it.” Grady Hillman, A Journey of Discouragement and Hope: An Introduction to Arts in Corrections
“Teaching at Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP) has caused a paradigm shift in my mind… I was there to facilitate the learning of visual arts, a universally accepted constructive and empowering activity. The environment at my visual arts class was never hostile, but it was unique..the “weather” in prison is unpredictable: classes can be cancelled, students cannot be let out, lockdowns can occur. This is the value I learned from teaching art in prison: no matter who the student is or what stage they are in, you show them the formula from day one, and each time you meet, you have them DO the formula- stay active- keep practicing- make something.” ~ Jaime Sanchez Teaching Artist
“This dinky little room [in Soledad Prison], Arts-in-Corrections, became my paradise and liberator. It opened doors and broke barriers in my mind. It gave the tools to end my addictions. I served 27 years in prison, and because of the benefits reaped from the program, I would not trade those years for anything.” ~ Rico, Prison Arts Project Alumni.