(“Robin” by John Schiavron, pastel)
While I was working as an artist/facilitator with California’s Arts in Corrections program, I often wished there were a reentry arts program that I could refer paroling inmates to, a place where they could find a creative community and continue on a path many of them had begun only after coming to prison. About four years ago, I got a call from a parole agent who suggested I go to the local theater. When I arrived, the play’s director told me that John, a former student who’d paroled four months earlier, had presented himself, saying he had a background in designing and painting sets, but it was all at prison.
John had spent most of his adult life behind bars. Before he paroled, he told me that until he began working in a collaborative creative environment, he’d never thought of himself as anything but a criminal. But while he was still in prison, he began to imagine a different sort of life, a life that included art and theater and a commitment to his community. Within a year of paroling, John showed his work at a local gallery. He went from decades in prison to an artist’s reception, from criminal to community theater volunteer. This is what John says about his art education in prison: “It would prove to be a life saving experience. I became involved in many aspects of Art. Poetry, painting, drawing, writing, acting, singing. I learned how to collaborate with others. I was learning a new lifestyle and it gave me a good feeling to be doing something different with my life. I learned that I could do something besides being a prisoner. I started feeling confident. I started feeling proud of this transition that was taking place in me. The experience for me was dramatic. When I paroled, I knew it would be different for me. I am changed. I am off of parole now and continue to be involved with productive projects to continue my transformation.”
One of his colleagues, Cliff, a writer, says: “I can testify that the single most challenging aspect of my incarceration, as well as my release, was a sense of belonging. While incarcerated I got involved in Arts In Corrections. In the program we wrote and produced theater plays with fellow inmates. Our first play, Blue Train, about a father and son who meet for the first time in prison, turned out to be a life-changing experience. Inmates who were usually separated by race, gang affiliation and social status worked together for the first time. While producing Blue Train, I watched hard men become like children again. That is when I knew the power of art. That is when I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
Jorge, a gifted young poet, writes about his first encounters with literature: “I began to read and write while I was in a juvenile detention camp, and this habit went with me to prison when I became an adult. First I would read novels and fiction and even from these novels and fictions books I would learn a few things from, soon after I began reading other books like self-help and books I can learn from, my eyes opened to a new world to the real world, I realized that the small world where I was a small legend where a lot of other small and limited people came from was just a grain of sand compared to the giant world that really existed.”
John and Cliff and Jorge are just a few of the men whose talent and determination to succeed inspired me to leave the Arts in Corrections program and begin a new path myself, as program director of the William James Association’s Poetic Justice Project. The Poetic Justice Project helps ex-offenders come back into their communities through engagement in the arts, including workshops, mentorship and public performances. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.