From over here on this side of the wall, you all have made many of us feel human once again. Thank you so much for that.
January 22, 2010 5:54 PM   Subscribe

"There are general feelings of hostility and hopelessness in prisons today and it is getting worse with overcrowding. . . Art workshops and similar programs help take us out of this atmosphere and we become like any other free person expressing our talents. Being in prison is the final ride downhill unless one can resist the things around him and learn to function in a society which he no longer has any contact with. Arts programs for many of us may be the final salvation of our minds from prison insanity. It's contact with the best of the human race. It is something that says that we, too, are still valuable."

California's highly successful Arts-in-Correction program will be ending on January 31, 2010 due to California's financial woes. Initiated by the William James Association, as part of its Prison Arts program, Arts-In-Corrections lost most of its state funding in 2003, but continued to staff 25 Artist Facilitator positions in state prisons. Now, despite widespread support and appeals to save the program, those positions have been eliminated in the latest budget cutbacks.

Multiple studies have shown that arts programs for inmates reduce recidivism rates (pdf), curb aggression and improve the well-being of prisoners. Many inmates and former inmates credit arts programs with helping them to survive their incarcerations and adjust to life outside when their sentences end. Prisoner arts programs commonly focus on visual arts (previously, and previously) and theatre (previously), and most programs deliver a wide range of artistic experiences to inmates, but some programs specialize in areas such as music, dance, and creative writing.

Some more unusual programs include:
Film Making programs in the U.S. and in the U.K.

A prison in the Philippines which has created viral videos with its dance program

A British program which offers Gamelon (Indonesian percussion) workshops

Textile arts, including needlework, knitting, quilting, and weaving programs

Radio broadcasting

Aboriginal Australian and Native American arts

Breakdance classes
for juvenile offenders in Uganda
posted by Dojie (23 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Here's yr new America: don't get sick and don't be born poor.
posted by bardic at 6:07 PM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's a shame that the arts are generally seens as extraneous as opposed to being an important part of human development. When your school district runs out of money, which are the first programs to go?

This is especially bad for prisoners as it's probably some of the only positive stimulation some of them ever get. I'm not surprised that having programs like that would decrease recidivism rates - the alternative is staring at a blank cell walls and being menaced by the other inmates, which probably doesn't do much to help people on the path towards being a productive member of society when they get out.

This indicates that the prevailing attitude in the penal system in the US is indeed that prisons are here for punishment and not rehabilitation. Of course, if any of these people are actually going to be let out eventually, I know which one of those options I'd lean towards.

Of course, I can understand why these programs are the first to go - there aren't that many alternatives. It's not like you can instead choose to skimp on your food budget or guards' salaries, right? Of course, if we didn't incarcerate so many people maybe we wouldn't be having these budgetary problems to begin with...
posted by Consonants Without Vowels at 6:33 PM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

until we improve education/arts opportunities for those *not* behind bars, ain't no way in hell we can sell educational/arts opportunities inside.

I've been watching education news and one by one school districts in FLorida, from Broward and Pinellas down to Levy and below are rejecting Obama's Race to the Top initiative. Why? because one important component is merit pay, which teachers' unions consistently reject.

again, why? because in the context of NCLB (no child left behind), reading, math, social studies, science and language arts teachers benefit (if they're effective) from outcomes of state standardized testing like FCAT.

music art and dance teachers, although they're required to work reading, math, sciences and social studies into their curricula, do not directly benefit from standardized testing merit bonuses.

schools are continuing to discontinue their music and arts programs in droves, even when there is overwhelming consensus that the art/music program is an integral part of the community culture. everybody wants to have it, nobody wants to pay for it.

bottom line, for anybody to have art, we gotta raise taxes. (ducking)
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:35 PM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

How sad. Seen from the outside, California seems to be swirling around the vortex of a toilet which is made of itself and which it itself flushed. They're sacrificing their future in so many ways. No more schools, no more community support programs, no more infrastructure, no more programs to help prisoners keep their humanity... If these trends are not reversed, I shudder to think what kind of situation the state will find itself in around 2030. It isn't an optimistic picture.
posted by hippybear at 6:39 PM on January 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

California seems to be swirling around the vortex of a toilet which is made of itself and which it itself flushed.

You know that old saying about everything starting in California? Rich states falling apart, that's the new fad California is spreading to a state near you.

And is there *anything* No Child Left Behind hasn't fucked up?
posted by kenlayne at 7:09 PM on January 22, 2010

And is there *anything* No Child Left Behind hasn't fucked up?

The careers of the politicians who supported it.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:24 PM on January 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

This thread was doomed from the outset for its default derail setting, so before I pile on to the derailing, let me applaud the human being responsible for this FPP and the incredible potential - and actual results - of prison arts programs.

On to the derail! Obama yesterday made clear that he is withholding Federal education funding from those state educational bureaucracies who do not explicitly link teacher pay to their students' (future) test results. Needless to say, these tests are linked - marginally - to only one aspect of students' growth: their performance in the linguistic/mathematical areas of academic achievement. Teachers attempt, on the sly, to increase students' ability to effectively communicate with one another, and thus to work in teams (a deficit business has highlighted as perhaps the skill they lack the most); their sense of civic involvement; their ability to make the most of what might be a bad lot in life; their life skills in general; their sense of compassion; their ability to extract valuable life lessons from fiction; their facility with expression - including artistic expression; the sense that some adults genuinely care about their lives: past, present, and future; and...I could go on and on.

These are very real lessons to be learned, and if they are not learned at home, school might be the only place to learn them. (I am aware of schools' participation in the general propaganda machine that includes the media and familial indoctrination. This is unfortunate, of course.)

More power to the healing - and culturally disruptive - power of The Arts!
posted by kozad at 7:44 PM on January 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Fantastic first post.
posted by kid ichorous at 7:55 PM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh god, I've developed an aversion to thinking about the US prison system, it's so fucking depressing. But maybe this post will help - I'm glad there are a few rays of light. Thanks for posting this, and great first post!
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:59 PM on January 22, 2010

I'm sorry, I put the penny on the track. how I got there was that every time I brought up a prison art/ed/humane treatment/whatever initiative in conversation, the person I was speaking to would object strenuously with the argument that "we can't even get that for our kids and they're going to give it to those criminals" (ugly paraphrase)??!!1/

which led me to conclude that the only way we can get to the point of treating prisoners humanely is to get serious about funding arts in our communities, thus my digression about nclb.

I'm really sorry, and I hope I can just have a little fingerpainting with my tin cup and plate.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:29 PM on January 22, 2010

Isn't that always the way it goes. When the money gets low, the first things they throw out are the most sane features of society.

In high schools it's the art and music programs.

No wonder we keep getting the same kind of leaders in the world. Turf guarding.
posted by Twang at 8:52 PM on January 22, 2010

Needless to say, these tests are linked - marginally - to only one aspect of students' growth: their performance in the linguistic/mathematical areas of academic achievement standardized test-taking.

Linking teacher pay to standardized test results only forces teachers into forfeiting academic instructional time to concentrate their efforts on making sure kids know how to play odds well on multiple choice questions. This new policy just magnifies the ill-effects of a policy that was already failing to educate usefully.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 10:29 PM on January 22, 2010

Having been inside before, and posted extensively on other sites which have been linked on MeFi; I can say with confidence that all I want out of life is to never go back to prison.
posted by hamida2242 at 1:30 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't understand the NCLB hate. Either:
1) Art instruction does not help children grow and learn reading basics, in which case it will not benefit from merit pay, and time would be better spent learning reading
2) Art instruction does help children grow and motivates them to learn in other areas, in which case the data will support quality art teachers

If you've seen the NCLB assessments, they are not tricky and based on gaming multiple choice. They are simple questions getting at basic reading comprehension.
The goal is not to get great scores like the SAT; the goal is to get a low failure rate.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:38 AM on January 23, 2010

I totally agree with ConsonantsWithoutVowels, but I'm wondering - even if you do a good job with rehabilitation in prison, have art/ed/vo programs to prepare prisoners for a productive life on the outside, who employs them when they get out? when pretty much all public sector jobs mandate a background check which is generally used to screen against anyone who's ever been jailed, and private employers increasingly do the same?

so, not only do we mistreat prisoners whom we expect to come out of jail and reject a life of crime, we then make them effectively unemployable. what do art programs do to change that?
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:25 AM on January 23, 2010

what do art programs do to change that?

Art can help harness anger and make it constructive (it's damn therapeutic to paint angry splotches and scream out your anger in a play and dance it into the ground), which is useful both inside and outside the joint.

It can also allow identification of those students who do have talent and who may be able to pursue the arts as a career path (the arts, after all, are often less picky about a person's past).

It can help develop the self-esteem of prisoners (who may not have ever had reason, at home or at school, to develop confidence in themselves) which upon release can help them from going back to bad habits and allow them to develop new ones. This is where the 'reduces recidivism' link comes in from the FPP. Some of those ex-prisoners may then--as a result of developing self-confidence through art classes--seek out paths where their time in prison can be overlooked and become employable.

I definitely agree with you that we do a shameful job of helping ex-cons re-enter society, but I do think that the arts can assist with that.

California seems to be swirling around the vortex of a toilet which is made of itself and which it itself flushed.

I understand what you're saying, but I do think there are reasons to be hopeful nonetheless. Not, I grant you, about arts programs in prison, but about California? It's a state that attracts dreamers, and I'm hoping that the current batch of dreamers will find us a way out of the maze (not toilet, please!).
posted by librarylis at 9:09 AM on January 23, 2010

I'm a teacher. And on some level, I agree with a robot made out of meat (I've taught a very cool science fiction story with a title similar to that, BTW). There always has to be some level of assessment in instruction. NCLB, however, only uses one or two metrics to determine growth, most often a standardized test. Other ways to determine growth are ignored because they're time consuming and expensive. (Project-based learning, say, or portfolios.)

I've got some small amount of tenure, so I have great latitude in picking the classes I teach. I always select ninth grade and reading improvement. To me, these are the most important high-school classes in English/language arts. Some kids, however--especially at this level--will not do well on tests. This is doubly true of the reading improvement class, when success is getting a kid who reads at a third- or fourth-grade level to read at a sixth-grade level. He's still underperforming as a ninth grader, so I, technically, have failed as a teacher--according to the standardized tests.

Should I ever see my pay determined by this metric, I will ask to teach only upperclassmen and the accelerated classes at that. Sorry, but I have a family to feed.
posted by John of Michigan at 9:15 AM on January 23, 2010

a robot made out of meat : I don't understand the NCLB hate.

Simple, really, though I suspect most MeFites will (at least publicly) disagree with me on my personal reason for disliking it...

NCLB has, as a core premise, the idea that dumb kids don't exist. Bad news - They do. Some kids get their PhD at 14, some never quite master how to place an order without lettuce when the picture of the cheeseburger on the cash register clearly has lettuce shown. You simply can't explain that level of disparity away as solely a matter of early developmental environment.

Now, in some cases, sure, you can argue that the kids have potential but their socioeconomic status prevents them from reaching it And in such situations, how does NCLB deal with an underperforming school in a poor town? It cuts funding to it. Cue the golf clap, because our fearless leaders have come up with a real winner of a solution there - Not enough money? Give them even less.

Dojie : It is something that says that we, too, are still valuable.

Those of us on the outside have no real value to society either, except as interchangeable cogs for Sam Walton to plug into his money-machine, wear out, and dispose of. And while I greatly disagree with the reasons for incarceration of much of the US prison population, those people have gone from "worthless" to an outright burden on the rest of us. So no, prisoners, you do not have value to society. "I don't like it any more than you men", but so it stands.
posted by pla at 9:46 AM on January 23, 2010

MeTa, so we can stay on prisons here and vilify NCLB there.
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:00 AM on January 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

pla: Bitter much?

Those of us on the outside are society. And prisoners sometimes come back out and then they too are society. The trick is to find ways for them to not be burdens on the rest of us once they get out. An ex-con who believes himself (or herself) to be worthless is a lot less likely to care about trying to contribute to society instead of continuing to be a burden.
posted by Dojie at 10:02 AM on January 23, 2010

And while I greatly disagree with the reasons for incarceration of much of the US prison population, those people have gone from "worthless" to an outright burden on the rest of us. So no, prisoners, you do not have value to society. "I don't like it any more than you men", but so it stands.

and one of the reasons for that burden is our continuing to imprison/jail people who don't actually need locking up at all. Laura Sullivan's bail piece on NPR this week details how people who can't afford their bail end up spending longer than their sentence would have been in jail awaiting trial.

furthermore, at trial, many who would have got probation if they could have made bail and got into a treatment or other program, end up getting prison time for minor offenses because while locked up, they lost the chance to demonstrate responsibility or salvageability to judges or jurors.

and finally, when they're stuck in jail/prison, they cost geometrically more to house than the cost of their crime, probation and restitution, which if they were out under a controlled (house arrest, probation, ankle monitor, etc), they could be repaying.

in short, prisoners are mostly a burden because we want them to be.
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:20 AM on January 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

While doing some research on volunteer access to prisons, I spoke with a guy who had wanted to teach music to prisoners. He told me he got no cooperation at any level from the prison administration, and finally had to give up the idea. It wouldn't even have cost the system anything, since he was going to be providing donated ukuleles, but the system just wasn't interested in anything except brutalizing the inmates.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:29 AM on January 23, 2010

You can't have a class society without prisons. Define the lowest underclass and everybody falls into place. Hence prisons must be shitholes. That's their function.

Humane prison policy? In a country with one of the highest prison populations in the world? Utterly subversive.
posted by warbaby at 10:58 AM on January 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

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