Freedom of Expression: Art Instruction in California Prisons

Featuring: Peter Merts

Presented By

California Lawyers for the Arts

These photographs document Arts in Corrections, a program of inmate art instruction funded by the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) and administered by the California Arts Council.

The light inside prison tends toward dim and grim, which is not at all the mood I witness in these classes. So I take in two strobe lights on stands and attempt to illuminate things in a way that reveals the passion, focus, commitment, camaraderie, and occasional joy of the participants.

Before each photo shoot, I let the students know that their outside friends and families with internet access will be able to see the photos within a week or two and obtain inexpensive prints.

I began this project with a curiosity about the motivating experience of joy, fulfillment, and authenticity that art practice can bring to one’s life. Now 12 years in, I just love what I continue to witness—instructors who are not only technically and artistically skilled, but who are also patient, generous, and inspirational.

I see students who leave the usual rules of the yard at the door and routinely engage in collaboration, mentoring, mutual respect, and creative, emotional risk-taking. And they laugh. A lot.

ORGANIZATION BIO

The mission of California Lawyers for the Arts is to empower the creative community by providing education, representation, and dispute resolution.

Our vision is that artists and arts organizations serve as agents of democratic involvement, innovation, and positive social change, and the growth of an empowered arts sector is essential to healthy communities.

California Lawyers for the Arts leadership and services strengthen the arts for the benefit of communities throughout California. California Lawyers for the Arts (CLA) became involved in advocacy to restore California’s stellar Arts in Corrections programs in 2011.

In addition to having the nation’s largest state prison population, California also claimed one of the highest recidivism rates in the country at nearly 70%. CLA worked actively with local partners to conduct a collaborative demonstration project in several state prisons that involved pre- and post- incarceration surveys of the students.

Based on the evidence gathered at that time, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was persuaded to provide the California Arts Council with a $2.5 million contract in 2014 for a two-year pilot project providing arts programs in up to 19 state prisons.

The initiative brings a new level of awareness and appreciation for the value of effective arts programming in correctional facilities.

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