OP-ED: Arts in the Prisons Create Opportunities for Justice

By Troy Williams

California Lawyers for the Arts and the William James Association, in collaboration with the University of San Francisco (USF), recently hosted a four-day national conference, “Arts in Corrections: Opportunities for Justice and Rehabilitation,” which showcased insights into new developments and challenges in providing prison arts programs to incarcerated men and women across the United States.

Practitioners of prison arts projects came from as far away as New York, New England, Florida, Philadelphia, Oklahoma, Connecticut, New Mexico, and of course California. More than 200 individuals packed the McLaren Conference Center at USF.

One group of panelists discussed the nuts and bolts of working in prisons across the country. On this particular day, I was the only formerly incarcerated person in the room.

Having been incarcerated in California only eight months ago, I was in the unique position of providing critical insights from the perspective of inmates.

I sat on a panel with a group of experienced practitioners from different disciplines, including dance, theatre, music, literary, and visual arts. After hearing other panelists speak, I was even more grateful for my experience in prison arts projects while incarcerated.

While in prison, I acted in several Shakespeare plays produced in association with Marin Shakespeare and co-authored four books in the Brothers in Pen creative writing class.

But my gratitude is not just for prison arts but also for the humanity of those who provide the prison arts.

Practitioner after practitioner spoke on different panels throughout the day. There seemed to be a consensus throughout the country that the Department of Corrections does not care about providing programs to inmates.

Based on my experience, many prisons in California have a “lock-em-down” first, then ask questions later approach to providing programs. Many times the safety and security of a particular prison can and does override the need for public safety.

Keep in mind, the majority of prisoners will return home. My question is: “In what condition do you want them to return?”

When one practitioner said, “We have to take an evidence based approach to supporting prison arts,” I raised my hand and shouted, “here I am.”

The truth is that there are hundreds of formerly incarcerated men and women who participated in Arts In Corrections programs. They have paroled and are out in the community working with youth, community based organizations or just living law-abiding lives.

There is an emotional component I learned from acting in Shakespeare plays and writing, which taught me to understand my own emotional makeup as well as the emotional make up of those I come in contact with. When emotionally hurt or verbally confronted, my first instinct has become to explore character rather lash out in flight or fight mode.

What more evidence is needed than walking, talking, living proof that these programs work?

It was the humane treatment from caring individuals – Zoe Mullery, Sonya Shah, Lesley Currier, Laurie Brooks, and Alma Robinson – that inspired me to care enough to change.

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