How creativity and expression bring a renewed sense of importance to the incarcerated
Jack Bowers once had a revelation while walking through his Seabright neighborhood. As Bowers, who worked as an art facilitator at Soledad State Prison, and his kids made their way to a local playground, he saw a man on a porch that he recognized—a former inmate from Soledad. It gave him a renewed sense of the importance of prisoners being a part of the larger community.
“It was brought home to me: Who do we want coming back to the community?” says Bowers. “Someone who is angry and bitter, or someone who’s part of the community, a responsible neighbor? It’s called enlightened self-interest.”
It’s just the sort of thing that motivated Bowers to work with prisoners in the state’s Arts in Corrections program for 23 years. Now he’s up for a new challenge. On Oct. 1, 2011, California began a plan to shift low-level offenders to county custody instead of overcrowded and under-funded state prisons. Bowers looks at this realignment as an opportunity to reconstitute the prisons art programs that have been decimated by state budget cuts.
“All the counties are trying to figure out what this realignment will mean,” said Bowers. “(Santa Cruz has) been very receptive. At this point their program director is considering having art to be a part of the program next year. A crucial issue is how much funding is going to be available.”
He’s also spoken with the County Office of Education about having arts programs included in vocational programs at jails.
“This is a rare opportunity—it’s a significant change in how we deal with criminal justice,” says Bowers. “Those of us who have been there know … having art in that environment, in any environment, has a positive effect on the community.”
Bowers was a professional musician who moved to Santa Cruz in the early ’70s. He played with the local band Oganookie and performed with Jill Croston who later changed her stage name to Lacy J Dalton.
In 1978, the Santa Cruz-based William James association began a pilot arts program at Vacaville State Prison that later expanded to six prisons, including Soledad in Monterey County. Bowers was asked to do a song-writing workshop. That led to a twice-a-week gig that grew to a full time job as art facilitator at Soledad.
“Getting an art program going in a prison is a tough thing,” says Bowers. “You’ve got everything from a paint brush to a guitar string that correctional staff is going to look at as a weapon.”
He had to build trust with the inmates too, but one of the first things he noticed was the passion and the eagerness of his students.
“Here’s a group of people who were eager to learn music and have people advocate for them,” says Bowers. “Great, creative people who had to survive the prison experience.”
Bowers developed the music sections and hired a visual artist and a creative writer to run the other facets of the program. Success at Soledad and the other five prisons led to programs being established at all 33 state prisons.
“It was a growth period,” says Laurie Brooks, executive director of the William James Association.
The situation today is dramatically different. Brooks says that state budget cuts have slowly whittled away the programs. By 2003, all of the Arts in Corrections artists’ contracts were terminated. Her group still runs programs at San Quentin State Prison and the women’s unit of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, with limited private funding. The rest of the arts programs were merged into the prison system’s education program, which Brooks feels hurts their effectiveness.
“It became less of a hands-on art experience, more of a correspondence course,” says Brooks. “There’s a group thing that happens when you work with other artists—you get inspired.”
University studies cited on the William James website show that incarcerated individuals in the arts program had 75 percent fewer disciplinary actions and a 27 percent lower recidivism rate. The association contends that this also translates into improved human lives, and a better community for everyone – inside and outside of prison walls. Their goal is to commission a new study of a pilot program at a county jail to see if it yields similar results. They’re confident it will.
The program offers much more than run-of-the-mill arts and crafts. A key to their process has been to hire exceptional artists who also possess the ability to work within a rigid environment.
“More than teachers, we’re interested in the best artists who are passionate about their art,” says Brooks. “People who really dedicate their lives to art and have that deep connection – a focus on the discipline of being an artist, using excellent materials, really exploring other artists, art history, and contemporary artists.”
“It was a Fine Arts program,” says Bowers. “We weren’t art teachers—we were hired because we were artists.”
Almost 20 years ago, Santa Cruz resident Greg Chansky was an inmate at Soledad, where he was finishing a two-year stint for a marijuana violation. A musician before he was incarcerated, he relished the opportunity to join Bowers’ program.
While Chansky takes his past crime seriously and believes in the need for prisons, he’s not a fan of the way they’re run.
“It’s a regressive system. You’re going to come out of there with very primitive, primal personality traits,” says Chansky. “Nothing genteel or refined is encouraged there—everything is done by brute force to keep you in line—there’s not a lot of positive incentives.”
Chansky calls the prison arts project an oasis in a hostile environment. He describes prison as a hyper-masculine environment where it’s easy to lose yourself in a culture that can be heartless and predatory.
“There are no soft surfaces in prison—everything is hard and stark,” says Chansky. Prior to getting into the music program, he tried to find creative outlets wherever he could, including at his job washing dishes in the prison kitchen. “There was a large steam sprayer above the sink – it was so loud I could just sing out – no one could hear me.”
Chansky and Bowers were reunited last month at a Tannery Arts lecture session, where they participated in a panel discussion on art in prisons. Chansky, who is still an active musician and wrote more than 50 songs while in prison, performed several songs at the session.
Both men cite the arts program as providing an alternative to a population that is divided and segregated by race.
“You learn to work with others, to compromise,” says Chansky. “Almost like team building.”
Unlike the general population, the arts programs were integrated.
“The inmates created a space where they could make music and art,” says Bowers. “The bands had to get along—different races had to support each other.”
One of the themes of the Tannery Arts lecture was “Inside Out”—the notion that what happens in prisons affects the outside community—or what Bowers would call society practicing enlightened self-interest. Chansky offers his own philosophical take, asking whether prisons should be about reform or revenge: “The Buddha says revenge is like picking up a burning log,” says Chansky. “You pick it up – you get burnt. And that’s what happens to a society.”
Photos: Peter Merts