April 30 2014 01:11 PM

Advocates work to return creative arts programming to California prisons

Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Laura Pecenco and Kathleen Mitchell beam with nervous excitement. Armed with art supplies and stacks of consent forms, the two are corralled inside a small administrative office at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, waiting for last-minute approvals before they walk through the heavy doors of the state prison. They're about to kick off the first class in what's been dubbed Project PAINT, a new volunteer-run visual-arts program for Donovan inmates.

"There are 12 pencils and 64 colored pencils," says Mitchell, a glass artist. "I thought they might want us to know that."

"Yes," agrees Pecenco, a Ph.D candidate at UCSD and founder and driving force behind Project PAINT. "I counted the pencils twice."

In a place where everyday objects can become deadly weapons, a detail like this is important—just one of the things the two women have learned during the months it's taken to get the program off the ground.

Estela Acosta, the temporary community-resources manager at Donovan, helps the women over the last hurdles. Her drab, institutional office is brightened by an abstract painting, the creation of an inmate who participated in Arts-in-Corrections, a state-funded rehabilitation program for California prisons that launched in 1980 but whithered amid statewide budget cuts in the early 2000s, before being cut entirely in 2010. Large-scale paintings that emerged from the program hang throughout Donovan's administration building, and a grassy knoll outside the building serves as a sculpture garden featuring artwork made of aluminum airplane parts, created by former Arts-in-Corrections inmates.

Donovan inmates have written their own manifesto requesting that Arts-in-Corrections programs be reinstated.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

 Pecenco and Mitchell walk past the paintings and metal sculptures and enter the prison through a corridor bordered by towering electrified fences. They're led first to the Receiving and Release building, a holding cell for new inmates and packages for inmates. The walls inside R&R are being colored by a mural in progress, painted by a few prisoners who've also signed up to be students in the new art class. Spearheaded by Sgt. Evaristo Alvarez, a corrections officer with a background in art, the mural depicts the downtown San Diego waterfront in the early 1940s. The painting is a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, but it's a signal to Pecenco and Mitchell that the warden and some staffers at Donovan are interested in getting arts programming back inside the prison walls.


California's Arts-in-Corrections program, especially during its peak in the '80s and '90s, was considered a model for other states and recognized internationally for producing results. Studies conducted in 2012 and 2013 by Larry Brewster, a professor at the University of San Francisco and an advocate for prison reform, show that arts programming at state prisons has positive benefits for inmates, such as reduced disciplinary actions, increased self-esteem and self-respect, improved emotional control and a significantly reduced rate of recidivism. While Arts-in-Corrections wasn't designed to be a job-skills program, Brewster also found that many former inmates later used their creative skills in their careers as working artists after release.

Prisoners inside Richard J. Donovan Correctional
Facility are excited to have access to the arts again.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Only a handful of California's state prisons still offer arts programming. Those programs are run by volunteers and nonprofits like the William James Association Prison Arts Project, California Lawyers for the Arts, The Actors' Gang, Marin Shakespeare and Jail Guitar Doors. Brewster's most recent study was based on interviews and research with students participating in nonprofit-run arts programs, some of whom also took advantage of Arts-in-Corrections instruction.

"Legislators and policymakers want hard data," Brewster says of his 2013 study, which makes a strong case for arts programming's evidence-based results. "What we're trying to do, quite frankly, is get a renewal of state money to once again expand arts in prisons in all state institutions."

Since 2010, Brewster's been working with several arts-advocacy groups in pushing for the full-fledged return of Arts-in- Corrections, which, at its peak, enjoyed a $3.3-million annual budget and was run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, with the help of contractors like the William James Association.

Arts-in-Corrections employed fulltime professional artists as "artist-facilitators" who provided training in visual, literary and performing arts in every state prison. The once-robust program has been replaced by a strictly volunteer-run effort that Laurie Brookes, executive director of the William James Association, calls a "piecemeal approach" that doesn't reach nearly enough inmates.

"We stand at the ready to get things going again," Brookes says. "To me, the real heart of the matter is the qualitative research and the story of lives that get changed in significant ways because of the arts. If we divert even just one person and keep them from coming back to prison, we're saving the state thousands of dollars. The arts are a catalyst for transformation."

Brookes says that California's recent prison-realignment law, which seeks to reduce prison overcrowding by housing lower-level offenders in county jails, underscores the need for programs that cut recidivism. Citing help from state Sens. Loni Hancock and Ted Lieu, Brookes and Alma Robinson, executive director of California Lawyers for the Arts, say Arts-in-Corrections is close to being funded again.

"We're hopeful," Robinson says. "We don't have anything earth-shaking to report just yet, but I hope we will have some news soon…. There may even be money in next year's budget, but things aren't specific enough yet to talk about."


Pecenco and Mitchell are eventually led to the gym in Yard D at Donovan. The warehouse-like room is cold and dimly lit, and the loud whirring of the ventilation system makes it hard to hear. But, after weeks of back-and-forth with prison administrators, Pecenco is grateful to have finally found a space for the art classes, which will run for three hours on Monday and Wednesday nights for at least the next six months as Pecenco finishes up her doctorate degree in sociology.

About a dozen students were expected to show up to the inaugural class, but twice that number is here. Just a handful of desks are available; the rest of the inmates either stand or sit on the floor without any fuss. Pecenco makes the introductions and quickly gets the inmates started on sketching or thinking about ideas for the four, large-scale mobile murals that'll eventually end up in visitation rooms and serve as backdrops for family photos.

A mural inside Donovan's Receiving and Release area is being painted by inmates.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

The inmates' enthusiasm is obvious. Once Pecenco and Mitchell are done explaining the concept, the prisoners crowd around the few supplies available (the approval process for getting art supplies inside Donovan has proven to be challenging). A few inmates are so eager, they sit down on the floor as soon as they have their supplies in hand and begin sketching. Others talk excitedly amongst themselves about what the panels will become. Outdoor scenery quickly becomes a common theme.

"Art helps pass the time," says Chris Mulvaney, who's serving life without parole for first-degree murder. "It gives you a special feeling of accomplishment. That's one thing I really miss from being on the streets. I used to work on cars, restore furniture, work around the house, and that gave me a real sense of accomplishment…. In prison, I can't pick up a screwdriver. I can't pick up a hammer. I can't pick up a saw. So, I really just felt dejected for the first few years. Getting into art has brought that back to me—that feeling of accomplishment, that feeling of pride and happiness. Prison can be a dark, lonely and depressing place, even at the best of times."

Jason Imbach, another inmate with a life-without-parole sentence for murder, describes art-making as an important mental escape.

"Art is a way of not being in here," he says, thumbing through a portfolio of his artwork. "If I'm drawing a picture of San Francisco, I can feel like I'm standing on the street drawing it versus sitting in my cell looking at a concrete, gray wall…. It allows you to leave prison in your head."

With the help of a few other inmates, Imbach recently put together what he calls a "Manifesto for Arts-in-Corrections Programming at Donovan." Pulling data from Brewster's studies, he had his mom help him type up the document, which is intended for the warden.

"This is the philosophy of the program," Imbach says, reading from the manifesto: "Above all else, art, and therefore the Donovan arts project, is about one thing: the secret of how to work."

He looks up from the paper. "It's basically about teaching you self-confidence, giving you the skills and letting you know that practice makes perfect."

Imbach and other inmates are hopeful that Pecenco's art project and another volunteer-run creative-writing course at Donovan spearheaded by SDSU professor Paul Sutton will help lead the way for more permanent arts programming at the prison. But they know that without significant funding, it's not likely to happen unless more volunteers step in or the state decides to reboot and refund Arts-in-Corrections.

"California Department of Corrections as a whole, though, is stick, stick, stick," says inmate Scott Johnson. "It's not carrot and stick. They don't care about that. They just want you to sit in our cell and be quiet."

David Beck-Brown, a local artist who headed up Donovan's former Arts-in-Corrections program as the artist-facilitator, says while he appreciates the efforts of volunteers like Pecenco, he sees it as a temporary solution.

"I wish the best for these programs," he says. "But change really needs to come from Sacramento legislation."

Before the inmates at the art class have to rush back to their cells for the 9:15 p.m. cell count, Mulvaney says he hopes the completed murals will make a big impression on people outside of the prison walls.

"When the public finds out about this, maybe they won't have such a low opinion of us, because we are still human," he says. "We're not treated as such, but we still are."

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