By Erin Harrington
Building a classical guitar is a demanding and arduous process. The wood must be molded, shaped and sawed. Due to the precarious use of belt grinders and grindstones, one must be careful to protect one’s appendages. The skills needed for this shaping and grinding do not come naturally, they require many hours of training and practice. No, these skills are not a part of any class offered at UC Santa Cruz. They are taught in a guitar-building course offered at the San Quentin State Prison.
Kenny Hill, former instructor for the Arts in Corrections Program, taught classical guitar-building classes to inmates for many years. He notes that many inmates have been able to take their guitar-building skills and apply them to life outside of prison. And of those who have, many have successfully started their own businesses or have worked for others making guitars.
“It makes the environment more humane,” Hill said of arts rehabilitation programs. “It gives the participants something to focus on.”
The course is a part of the Arts in Corrections Program (ACP), a rehabilitative art program instituted in each of the 32 California state prisons. Santa Cruz jails also hold art workshops similar to the Arts in Corrections program, with the purpose of providing a venue for dialogue and creative development.
Research shows that the ACP has been beneficial to prisoners. According to a study conducted by San Jose State Professor Lawrence Brewster, the ACP has had a drastic impact. His findings showed that for prisoners who were involved in the program, there was a 75 percent reduction in disciplinary write-ups (based on a period from the three months before a person is imprisoned to the three months after leaving the prison). As well as a decrease in write-ups, 63 percent of prisoners in the program were less likely to re-offend after two years than the average inmate.
According to Hill, it is essential that the rehabilitation programs continue to exist, even if solely to keep the prison environment stable for inmates and employees.
“Although the idea of prison is to make your life miserable for the time you’re in prison, it actually makes prison a more functional environment for everybody,” Hill explained. “Prison is a world unto itself. One of the things that I think people on the outside don’t understand is that that world needs to function fairly smoothly.”
Despite proven rehabilitative qualities, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) decided that, because of a lack of funding, the ACP simply had to be cut. Along with arts programs in Santa Cruz jails, the ACP now has to rely entirely on outside funding in order to keep creativity and expression alive within prison walls.
Without the help of private, outside funding from various groups, like the Santa Cruz-based William James Association, the ACP would cease to exist. According to Jack Bowers, chair of the Board of Directors for the William James Association, the ACP was never the same after the Department of Corrections’ budget crunch.
“In 2003 there was a budget crunch, and the program was cut,” Bowers explained. “The program didn’t cease to exist, but it was cut back radically, because there were no funds to bring in outside artists, there was a limited supply budget, and artists’ facilitators’ primary job at that point became working with bridging students as opposed to doing fine arts classes that had been done in the past.”
The History Behind the Art
The ACP started in the Santa Cruz area when Eloise Smith, an artist who made many contributions to UC Santa Cruz art galleries, began giving art lessons to prisoners in the nearby Vacaville prison in 1976. At that time, however, the program had no name.
According to Bowers, the California Arts Council developed because of Smith’s efforts, and was created with the hope of “bringing art services to underserved people.”
“The entire cost [of the program] was about three million dollars, which is a negligible amount for the overall California Department of Corrections budget,” Bowers said.
Bowers explained that the reason the program has been so effective is simple.
“Prison is often a boring place to be,” he said. “There’s not a lot of stimulus. There are jobs, but there isn’t a lot for inmates to do where they can really feel like they’re making changes in themselves, and are able to contribute to their environment.”
Art Projects Locally
The Inside Out Writing and Art project (IOWAP) is an art rehabilitation program in Santa Cruz and is sponsored by UC Santa Cruz’s Women’s Center. The program provides services to both the Main Santa Cruz women’s jail and the Blaine St. women’s jail. Danielle*, an artist and inmate at the Blaine St. jail, has been provided with a space for self-expression through the IOWAP.
“I never really had a lot of resources, oddly enough, until I ended up here,” Danielle explained.
For Danielle, art has always been therapeutic.
“[Art is] therapy, it helps me process stuff, it gives me something to do,” Danielle said with a burst of enthusiasm. “It took me until I wasn’t somebody’s wife and wasn’t somebody’s mother before I could start doing any of this. I had to get to a point where I was doing it for me.”
Creative expression has been a growing process for Danielle, and because of rehabilitation programs like IOWAP, she continues to have a venue for that expression.
The main difference between IOWAP and ACP is that the former is offered in the local jails, while the latter exists within the California state prisons. The purpose of IOWAP, according to Women’s Center Director Roberta Valdez, is to provide “an opportunity to talk, to share, and to create.”
The project was started in 2001 by a UCSC graduate student named Sadie Reynolds, and originally was only a writing project.
“The intent of [the project] was really to begin to have dialogue of people’s experiences, but in a way that critically looked at why there were prisons and jails, and why people were in prisons and jails,” Valdez said. “There were readings of poetry and different pieces of prose that stimulated the writing and discussions.”
While various rehabilitation programs have existed in California jail and prison systems for decades, Reynolds wanted to bring something special to our local jails: creative expression as a form of outlet.
“At some point it became clear that people were also interested in that kind of self-expression that takes part when somebody does something creative,” Valdez explained.
After this revelation, the title of the project became the current Inside-Out Writing and Art Project.
Although the program has continued to grow, a large obstacle continues to be the lack of supplies available within the jails.
Valdez, however, still has a positive outlook on the situation. “I think you can always create, no matter what materials you have,” she said.
“Neither jails can have staples, and [they cannot] allow certain kinds of scissors, so we do a lot of torn kinds of [art projects],” Valdez reflected.
The rules are not as restrictive at the Blaine St. jail because it is minimum security, which makes it a much more relaxing, community-based environment that allows the artists a bit more room to stretch their creative wings.
According to Mona Eshaiker, a UCSC student and intern at the Women’s Center, a common misconception of prisoners is that they are somehow “helpless” or “defenseless.” Eshaiker, who helps to organize the Inside Out Writing and Art project, insists that we re-evaluate our misconceptions and assumptions about rehabilitation programs.
“We like to keep our goal apparent, which is not aimed to ‘help’ women in jails, but to create a dialogue and a safe place for self-expression inside jail walls by individual students who are in solidarity with those incarcerated,” Eshaiker explained via e-mail.
Minnie Rodriguez, the programs coordinator for the Main Jail and Blaine St. Jail, is very appreciative of the project. She feels that the popularity of the workshops is a clear indication of the enjoyment that the creative sessions supply for the women.
“Normally we would have anywhere from five to 10 women attending the class,” Rodriguez said. “For a volunteer class where the women choose to attend on their own, I think it’s a positive sign that there are so many in the class.”
Art for the Future?
Although five to 10 students may seem like a small amount, it is apparent that all rehabilitation programs for inmates have positive effects.
Craig Haney, professor of psychology at UCSC, has been studying the corrections and rehabilitation programs in the California prison system for over 30 years, during which time he has found rehabilitation programs to be helpful to inmates and the community. Haney feels that the budget cut of 2003 was a bad decision on the part of the CDCR.
“I think the budget cut that wiped out the Arts in Corrections Program in 2003 was unconscionable,” Haney said via e-mail. “It destroyed an inexpensive, cost-effective program that, for many prisoners, was the only thing giving them hope and direction.”
Haney explained that the reason art rehabilitation programs like ACP have been so successful is that they create a nurturing environment.
“Programs that provide prisoners an opportunity to experience and develop talents that they already have but which have not been nurtured, such as creative and intellectual talents, are really helpful,” Haney stated. “This is one reason the arts programs have been so popular and successful.”
Haney feels that there is no reason to question the effectiveness of the programs, the positive impact is concrete and apparent.
“Based on my own contact with the system, rehabilitation is the only sensible approach to incarceration,” Haney said. “Why put people in prison but deny them an opportunity to develop their talents and abilities? Approximately 90 percent of people who go in come out. If they come out worse off than they went in, we all lose.”
*Danielle’s last name has been omitted to respect her privacy.*