2017-04-02 17:40:03
No License Plates Here: Using Art to Transcend Prison Walls

SOLEDAD, Calif. — More than most artists, the men who gather twice a week for mural class in the B Facility are accustomed to darkness.

But the scene they are creating — a tropical rain forest — requires color and light, elements in short supply at Salinas Valley State Prison.

“I don’t have much of a legacy,” Jeffrey Sutton, who is serving 41 years for armed robbery, said of his life. “This is something positive that helps me focus on getting out,” he added, daubing flecks of green onto the leaves of a jungle vine.

The mural class for high-level offenders is part of a new initiative by the State of California to bring the arts — including Native American beadwork, improvisational theater, graphic novels and songwriting — to all 35 of its adult prisons, from the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near the Mexican border to Pelican Bay, the infamous supermax just shy of the Oregon line.

In a political climate in which federal arts agencies are under siege, the state has allocated $6 million annually for the Arts in Corrections program, a figure set to rise to $8 million next year.

Unlike most prison arts programs across the country, which rely on volunteers, this one — a partnership with the California Arts Council — hires respected artists, like Guillermo Aranda, a Chicano muralist who teaches four classes weekly at Salinas Valley. The teachers’ commitment requires them to relinquish their keys and cellphones before clearing heavily monitored security points — and to keep their cool if their class is unexpectedly canceled because of a lockdown.

It can be humbling, as Mr. Aranda discovered recently when he arrived drenched from a pelting rainstorm and grumbled about it to his class. “Man, I wish I could complain about that!” an incarcerated student said.

Behind San Quentin’s brooding crenelated walls, the art studio offers a pu-pu platter of metallic-color paints and variegated drawing pencils. Men in blue corrections uniforms who have been convicted of shooting a girlfriend at close range or reckless driving that killed two children hover intently over canvases.

Scott McKinstry, 47, convicted of second-degree murder and firearm possession, has spent seven of his 51-years-to-life sentence designing a 16-panel homage to urban life. His fanciful mural, intended to brighten the walls of the chow hall, teems with mansard roofs, neon signs, Victorian houses and other details inspired by the Japanese-born painter he admires, Hiro Yamagata. His project, along with anger management classes, has helped Mr. McKinstry understand “why things bug me and why I ended up here,” he said.

“A lot of guys in prison don’t have a sense of self-worth,” he continued. “It helps you grow as a human being to say ‘Hey, I can do something.’”

Bruce Fowler, 52, serving 21 years to life for murder, was in the San Quentin studio finishing a sculpture inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” It depicts a fisherman hooking a huge marlin as his boat is buffeted by voluptuous waves.

The piece is fashioned from materials allowed in this restricted environment: The papier-mâché waves are a mix of floor wax and toilet paper. The boat is made from the back of a writing tablet cut into pieces. The oars are carved from Popsicle sticks from the canteen; the sail was snipped from a sheet. The fishing line is a broken string from a guitar class.

Arts experts who work in prisons cite the homegrown ingenuity of making paints from M&Ms soaked in water, brushes plucked from a straw broom, and diorama figures molded from window caulking.

“Watching TV shows like ‘Lockup’ gives you an unidimensional view,” said Laura Pecenco, an associate professor of sociology at San Diego Miramar College and founding director of Project Paint at the Richard J. Donovan facility, which includes portraiture and a comics workshop. “In the prison yard, men have a certain hypermasculine image to uphold, but in the studio they can drop their guard.

“The criteria of being a good artist is different than being a good prisoner,” Ms. Pecenco continued. “Being a good artist requires vulnerability.”

Survivors of crime have their own distinct view of the justice of such programs. “These classes shouldn’t be solely for enjoyment purposes,” said Dionne Wilson, the widow of Nels Daniel Niemi, a police officer who was fatally shot 12 years ago in San Leandro, east of San Francisco. “I’d like to see them coupled with a deeper discussion about acknowledging the harm they caused,” said Ms. Wilson, a survivor advocate for the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national organization dedicated to public safety and criminal justice reform.

Art’s presence in prisons is ages old: Visiting Philadelphia in 1842, Charles Dickens admired a Dutch wall clock with a vinegar-bottle pendulum made by a prisoner.

The California initiative coincides with a series of reforms that began in 2011, when the United States Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce prison overcrowding.

“When inmates are triple-bunked in a gym, the last thing you’re thinking about is a Shakespeare program or a mural class,” said Kristina Khokhobashvili, a corrections spokeswoman. The majority of the state’s roughly 117,500 inmates will eventually be released or have the possibility of parole. California voters have supported bolstering rehabilitation programming, which now comprises roughly $396 million of the state’s $11.3 billion corrections budget. As with climate change policies and other issues, California appears to be forging its own trail.

Arts classes alone do not change criminal thinking or behavior but they can change behavior within a prison, Mary Butler, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California, said. The Arts in Corrections project also has support from Gov. Jerry Brown.

“The arts, through creative expression and discipline, help prepare inmates for their eventual return to society,” he said. “It’s a real opportunity for them to gain greater insight into their lives and their relationships.”

There is little scientific data to support arts programming in reducing recidivism, but Susan Turner, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, is evaluating the state’s new initiative for the William James Association, a nonprofit specializing in arts programs in nontraditional settings, to assess whether it positively affects resilience and self-awareness and if so, why. “Art resonates,” she said. “People want to believe that the arts make a difference.”

Tom Lackey, a Republican state assemblyman who is a retired California Highway Patrol officer, has a prison in his district and visited a theater program there. “Six million is no joke,” he said of the statewide funding. “It was, ‘O.K., I’m going to watch this incredible waste of money,’” he said. Mr. Lackey said that he wasn’t prepared for the impact. “I could tell it was building morale and self-respect among inmates, which is hard to do. How do you measure the value of a person in dollars? This in an investment that yields a return.”

The sale of “prison art” has been controversial, however, with some prisoners marketed as self-taught “outsider” artists by New York galleries. The policy in California and many other states is that inmates are not allowed to actively engage in a business without a warden’s approval. But there is nothing to prevent an inmate from mailing artwork to a family member, who could in turn sell it.

Inmates at San Quentin have produced art for charities and their work has been exhibited, and most recently installed in the new Law and Criminology building at the University of Derby in England.

As in any arts milieu, there are occasionally stars. In California, Robert Vincent, a former custom car painter, was sentenced to 16 years to life for second-degree murder. At California State Prison, Sacramento, he discovered his métier as a luthier, under the tutelage of the classical and flamenco guitar builder Kenny Hill. While still incarcerated, Mr. Vincent was commissioned by Harry Belafonte to build a classical guitar for his friend Carlos Santana.

Today Mr. Vincent is a professional luthier outside San Diego. And fittingly, perhaps, his 31-year-old son Raymond, who learned drawing from his father in the prison visiting room, recently became an Arts in Corrections teacher of Byzantine gold-leaf icon painting — at the very prison that housed his father.

“I’m used to inmates with tattoos all over their faces,” Raymond Vincent said. “It seems very natural.”