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Pilot Program Funds Arts Classes In California Prisons

Peter Merts / California Arts Council

Marin Shakespeare at Solano State Prison: rehearsals of Macbeth

Peter Merts / California Arts Council

The California Arts Council has awarded contracts to 10 organizations that provide arts programs for inmates. The money for the pilot program, $2.5 million, comes from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Craig Watson is the director of the California Arts Council. He says the programs help prisoners reintegrate into society "in a much better way."

"The vast majority of prisoners will someday be our neighbors, in one or more communities of California, and so we need to be thinking about that and providing all the avenues to improve their potential for success," says Watson. "And the arts is a proven tactic for improving their state of mind, their self-esteem and the preparation for being a potentially productive member of society." 

Watson says studies show that recidivism rates are lower for prisoners who take arts classes.

He said an arts program for California prisons "virtually disappeared" after state budget cuts in the 1980s and '90s. 

Jim Carlson managed arts programs for the state prison system for 30 years until he retired.

Now, he teaches drawing at the California State Prison-Sacramento in Folsom, also called "new Folsom."

Carlson says he's watched as prisoners "find their voice." 

"When you're locked up, it dehumanizes the person who's locked up and it also has a very strong impact on the people who have to keep them locked up," says Carlson. "When you infuse the arts into that it brings in this human element that for the inmates creates a sense of self-esteem, a sense of self-worth." 

He said the arts require self-discipline, commitment and the ability to communicate.

"It teaches critical thinking – you have to make decisions, it teaches creative thinking – realizing the first thing that comes into your mind is not always the most effective," says Carlson. "The artistic process really develops a lot of transferable life skills to any individual who really commits to being involved with it."

Carlson says there are many Sacramento-area artists teaching guitar, flute, creative writing and poetry at Folsom. He says a theater workshop is planned this year. 

"We have local guitarists teaching classical and jazz guitar, three different creative writing instructors and a Grammy award winner, Mary Youngblood, teaching Native American flute," says Carlson. 

Carlson says there are also musicians that travel through the region every year that "do presentations" at the prison. 

"One thing the guys [inmates] say, is 'when you bring people in here for that brief time, we’re not invisible,'" says Carlson. "And that’s huge because they just begin to feel invisible with the number and the daily routine. But when we infuse artists from the community, it gives these guys a voice, a body and a personality, they’re not invisible for that time … if that happens over and over again, pretty soon that begins to have a [positive] impact on them." 

He says the average class size is about 12 individuals and there is a waiting list for the 10-12 classes offered each week at Folsom. 

Carlson hopes the pilot project leads funds for a larger program in all prisons, like the one he once managed. 

"Hopefully it will become a regular program again, not just a pilot program," says Carlson.