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Serving the Creative Arts Community Since 1974

Learning to Work and Play

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 1:56 PM | Alma Robinson (Administrator)

Following his compelling research for the William James Association documenting the benefits of arts-in-corrections programs, Dr. Larry Brewster, professor of public administration at the University of San Francisco, is completing a new book about ex-offenders who were engaged in art programs while they were incarcerated.  

Recently, he shared some highlights from his current research with members of the California Arts Council at their meeting in San Francisco. Ex-offenders said they had learned how to work and how to complete projects. Discipline and focus. Some of them talked about having something positive to share with their families, giving their children something they could say with pride about their parents. Becoming better role models. They also learned how to work with people of other ethnic groups--an opportunity to get past the racial divides that cause so much friction inside our prisons--and outside. Remarkably, of the 28 persons he has interviewed, eight are earning at least a partial living from arts-related work based on skills they learned while incarcerated.

Dr. Brewster's forthcoming book with photographer Peter Merts, Arts-in-Corrections: A Path of Discovery and Redemption, provides new arguments for advocates for arts education, not only in our prisons and jails, but also in schools and communities. Learning how to work, how to finish an assignment, how to accept suggestions for improvement and how to work with people who don't look like you are important survival skills in 21st Century California.  

These skills were in great evidence at a recent performance of Twelfth Night produced by Marin Shakespeare Company with inmates at San Quentin.  Following a rousing standing ovation, cast members expressed their gratitude--they were learning how to "play" together in a safe environment. One inmate pointed to the opportunity for restorative justice when he spoke poignantly about the opportunity to "give back" to society for the harm he acknowledged that he had caused.

In recent years, the Golden State has raced to the bottom with the highest recidivism rate in the country (an estimated 70% of released prisoners return within three years), while only 70% of high school students manage to graduate.   More than 2/3ds of incarcerated persons are school drop-outs, according to a report by the Pew Partnership for Civic Culture. In addition to the huge waste of human potential, the cost of corrections is consuming state income that could otherwise pay for infrastructure improvements, education, health care and other needed services.

While not the only solution, the arts provide significant benefits by keeping kids motivated to stay in school, and helping ex-offenders stay away from the revolving door of recidivism.  It is clear that the price of not addressing these gaps is just too great.  

CLA is working with the William James Association and California Arts Advocates to restore arts-in-corrections programs.   Our current statement about these issues describes this effort in more detail.

Alma Robinson, Executive Director
California Lawyers for the Arts



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