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Con Art: Creativity in Prison


By Mary Daily

Published Apr 1, 2014 8:00 AM

Painting and poetry inspire inmates to think differently.


Art has been a part of prison life for a long time.
These works were created by incarcerated convicts.

Art has an almost magical ability to build bridges between disparate and even hostile people. It provides a nonthreatening way to communicate common threads of interest between people of different cultures, backgrounds and worldviews. Nowhere is that ability to break down barriers more critical than in prisons.

Art has long been part of prison life. Portrait drawings and watercolor paintings from food dye, songwriting, poetry and prose have been as common as correctional officers and cellblocks. From 1980 to 2010, a statewide multidisciplinary arts program began in six California prisons, eventually rising to a total of 33 prisons, seeking to mold and guide inmates' creative impulses. The program lost its state funding, but those who taught in and facilitated it saw the difference it made; they are hoping the funding eventually will be restored. (*See below for update on funding.) Materials from the program, including thousands of slides of artwork, poems and short stories, are archived at UCLA.


"We want to inspire inmates to think differently about themselves and others," says Tom Skelly, who was an arts facilitator in prisons for 30 years and teaches a UCLA course titled "Arts Programs in Correctional Institutions: History, Theory & Practice." "This includes breaking down racial barriers. In prison, everyone has to identify their ethnicity and the colors are kept separate. But in class they come together. We want them to learn to collaborate. We instruct them not to be defensive or take their classmates' critique of their work personally. We want them to rethink their approach to life."

Ben Harbert M.A. '07, Ph.D. '10 wrote his ethnomusicology dissertation on prison art programs. He went on to make a documentary film, Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians. In the film, Harbert, now an assistant professor at Georgetown University, weaves together portraits of inmate musicians and highlights the power of music as a tool in struggles with alienation, criminal justice, community, race, gender, privacy and manipulation. "In those who commit to the arts," Harbert says, "we definitely see a personality change, as well as fewer behavioral issues and a lower recidivist (repeat offender) rate. They learn how to take risks and criticism."

The UCLA course is part of the Visual and Performing Arts Education Program, which enables students to learn about the transformative quality of art in nontraditional artistic sites. The course presents a comprehensive study of the Arts-In-Corrections program and looks at the functions of art in various contexts, including prisons, galleries and museums. Students explore career choices, develop curriculum appropriate for correctional institutions and learn the finer points of teaching the incarcerated. The course admits only 25 students, mostly undergraduates. "We need to have intense conversations," Skelly says, "so we keep the number small." By the end, students understand organized arts programming's ability to effect changes in thinking and behavior.

*UPDATE: On May 2, 2014, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) committed $1 million funding to add structured contracted Arts-in-Corrections programs in select state prisons, and to a second year of support in 2014-15. The California Arts Council will administer the funds, whose use is subject to reviews by state control agencies.