Other Voices: Killing arts program in state prisons will hurt rehab efforts
I am just a prisoner, a poet decades incarcerated, looking at the world from the inside out. But even I notice the benefit of the arts, and feel the loss when they’re gone.
I have been involved in Arts-in-Corrections – a program bringing art classes to men and women in California prisons – for more than 25 years of its 30 year existence. I began in a poetry class at San Quentin, where I sat silent and shy. I listened for more than a year as my heart and soul opened up.
As I began to put words on the page, people around me – prisoners and staff – began calling me “The Poet.” Then I played Pozzo in the 1988 production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at San Quentin. Beckett gave this production his blessings and advice. We played to international attention and glowing reviews.
I have gone from someone lost, someone who knew nothing about the world or the arts – how they can fill, touch, and open us up to ourselves, to others, and to the world – to a writer who has won four PEN Writing Awards, an actor who has mentored others, a poet whose work has been the subject of short films and plays and has served as the text of two musical works.
I am currently a teaching artist of both prose and poetry at New Folsom, where I am housed.
Arts-in-Corrections began from a pilot project set up at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville in 1977. The success of this pilot led to the formation of a statewide program active in all our prisons. In 2003, Arts-in-Corrections artists’ contracts were terminated, but the program continued. For the past seven years, the only cost has been that of one artist-facilitator, a civil service position.
The artist-facilitator at New Folsom has been Jim Carlson. At the end of January, these positions, too, will be cut, and the program will cease to exist.
AIC at New Folsom was adopted by KVMR in Nevada City. Radio personality Cheri Snook brought poets, singers, writers and musicians to the prison. These artists shared their skills, time, wisdom, and art for free. Directors, actors, conductors, and filmmakers came from Sweden and France to film and do workshops. All of it was free of charge. Last year, a 40-person choir came in from Sweden to perform a suite of songs inspired by the poems of a prisoner. They paid their own way and – once again – performed inside for free.
Michael Franti and Spearhead came to New Folsom to do a Thanksgiving show. He came to us right after performing at the Muhammad Ali Library dedication. Again: no cost to the state.
Most recently, Melissa Mitchell – a smooth and powerful rising star (who recently opened for singer and poet, Jewel) – and some of her artist friends from Alaska came into New Folsom to do a final show.
I understand that California faces a huge budget crisis, but Arts-in-Corrections costs nearly nothing. I understand that citizens who are losing all sorts of good programs don’t care about the loss of arts for people in prison. But as Arts-in-Corrections goes, so goes a history of self-rehabilitation and restoration, a history of people changing deeply from within. What’s left behind is an unnatural desert. How do we heal without the arts?
Spoon Jackson is a poet, writer, actor, teaching artist and native flute player. He has been in prison for more than 30 years.
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