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Research on California's arts in corrections

Jacqui Moyes, Prison Arts Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa, in San Francisco with Rodger Meir from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Mary Beth Barber from the California Arts Council26 November 2014
By Jacqui Moyes, Prison Art Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa

Researching the online world of “arts in corrections” in California, I realised that two prison art-related exhibitions were happening while I was there on annual leave. Not only that, the California Arts Council had awarded seven contracts to organisations working in arts in corrections to the value of US$2.5 million.

The opportunity to investigate was too good to miss, so I made contact with some key people to find out more about the return of funding to arts in corrections programmes to California’s prisons.

Firstly, I had an informative meeting with Mary Beth Barber from the California Arts Council and Rodger Meir from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in Sacramento.

Powerful exhibitions

Then I attended two exhibitions: @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the San Quentin Prison Report by Nigel Poor. Both were powerful and offered brilliant examples of how to engage the public in issues around incarceration and liberty, justice and rehabilitation.

An installation in the @LARGE Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz exhibition@LARGE Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz in Alcatraz National Park until 26 April 2015 includes seven art instillations in this historic site by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. In this exhibition, Ai Weiwei is responding to the island’s legacy as “a 19th-century military fortress, a notorious federal penitentiary, a site of Native American heritage and protest, and now one of America’s most visited national parks”.

For more information on @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.

In the San Quentin Prison Report exhibition, photographer and Associate Professor of Photography at California State University Nigel Poor recently exhibited a selection of new works from her ongoing work with the inmates of San Quentin Prison.

Artwork in the San Quentin Prison Report exhibitionFor more information on Nigel Poor and the San Quentin Prison Report.

I also met several inspirational people who work tirelessly for social justice causes in the non-profit sector. Many of them are not part of the formalised pilots and programmes but they are the innovators – the people who work with minimal or no funding, driven by their passion for creating positive change.

In this age of technology, so much is possible. We can connect to our international colleagues, move art between continents, and take the words and thoughts of prisoners and document them in fine art.

All of this work is done with the hope that we will reduce re-offending. One less offender is one less victim.

Changes to correctional policy

Historically, California has had strong arts programmes running in its corrections facilities but this had declined significantly over the past 10 years. At my meeting with Mary Beth Barber and Rodger Meir, we talked at length about the changes to correctional policy in 2007 and 2011 in an attempt to reduce the level of re-offending recent years; and the public response to the use of the arts to help deal with the high rates of incarceration.

The CDCR’s decision to commit US$2.5 million of funding over the next two years to piloting arts programmes in corrections facilities is a brave step. The funds are administered by the California Arts Council, which awarded contracts to seven organisations to deliver arts programmes in 14 state correctional facilities.

This renewed funding will support some of the organisations that have continued to deliver work over the past decade with no public funding: for example, the Actors’ Gang.

Led by actor and Artistic Director Tim Robbins, the Actors’ Gang Prison Project has been providing rehabilitative theatre arts programming in CDCR facilities since 2006 but will receive public funds for the first time through this pilot programme.

Although we have a small pool of talented art tutors working around New Zealand, most of the arts activities in our correctional facilities are dependent on volunteers and motivated Corrections staff.

Research, evaluation and evidence

A challenge for the California Arts Council will be creating the research, evaluation and documentation that can sustain and enable further developments of its Arts in Corrections programmes.

Jacqui Moyes, Prison Arts Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa, One of the Council’s key recommendations is the “collection an analysis of data to measure effectiveness”. It will also collect information and provide a "best practice" summary from the perspective of the seven organisations contracted to deliver the arts services. The findings will no doubt provide invaluable evidence.

Sustainable development of arts programmes in correctional facilities requires quality research so we have access to hard evidence on the value of arts programmes in supporting rehabilitation and reintegration goals.

Effective evaluation of projects can also evidence. It’s also an essential process so we can learn from previous mistakes, and ensure arts projects move ahead efficiently and effectively in the right direction.

Documenting prison art projects makes the world of arts in corrections more visible. To be innovative and move ahead, we need to know where we have been.

For more information on the California Arts Council’s recent arts in corrections pilot project, visit its website.

Please contact Jacqui Moyes (T: 04 802 4349 E: if you have any questions or feedback.


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