In the face of the ongoing California prison crisis with overcrowding rates climbing as high as 200% of capacity, the arts are making a re-entry into what many perceive as a broken system.
Last year, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts jumped at the chance to compete for a new contract offered by the California Arts Council in partnership with the California Department of Corrections to offer arts engagement programs in the prisons. ACTA was one of seven organizations selected for Arts-in-Corrections programs in fourteen state correctional facilities.
We wanted to challenge ourselves to design and implement a program led by traditional artists because we knew from experience that creating a sense of “belonging” through cultural expressions rooted in community traditions was not only possible, but necessary—even for a marginalized arts audience like California inmates. Drawing on arts that evoke home and family and foster gathering was an intentional strategy in which traditional arts have an edge compared to the academic fine arts. For example, considering the prison art traditions of paños (handkerchief drawings) and envelope art produced by Chicano inmates, we prioritized a dry-drawing course by East LA muralist Omar Ramirez to draw on established artistic talent and interest inside the prisons. The folk and traditional arts have an important role to play in rehabilitation as powerful facilitators of healing and creating a community space for sharing and reinforcing shared values and experiences of beauty.
ACTA had never bid on a state contract and the process to apply to the Arts-in-Corrections program was daunting (with a tight timeline that meant everyone worked on the proposal over the Memorial Day holiday) but ultimately rewarding. The efforts that went into this project have been well-worth the benefits, as evident even after we’ve only completed the first residency of a two-part series. Our new video features the first voices of student inmates at the Corcoran State Prison’s men’s maximum security unit, who participated in this program over the winter months. We also offer personal testimonies written by the ACTA-sponsored traditional artists; Cesar Castro and Quetzal Flores taught workshops in son jarocho music and collective songwriting, Michael McCarty taught workshops in storytelling, and Omar Ramirez offered workshops in drawing.
On a personal level, I also felt moved to do this work because my father was a psychiatric social worker who worked in the federal prisons for thirty years. Over the years, we’d talked about the arts programs launched back in the 70’s, when there was more of a focus on rehabilitation in the state and federal correctional facilities. What we’re seeing in California prisons today is that most people come out worse than they were when they went in—often suffering chronic physical and mental health afflictions, drug addictions, and overall loss of resilience. I’d want to show ACTA’s video to my dad if he were still alive and show him what we are accomplishing.
There is a powerful social justice function in providing these programs. The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world and its prisons and jails are overwhelmingly filled with African Americans and Latinos. We deliberately selected African American and Latino master artists and chose to highlight disciplines reflective of these particular communities in an attempt to bring familiarity and comfort to these men. ACTA believes that the people who have been thrown away by society are worth investing in and that healing through the arts is a productive strategy, one person at a time.