Art created by incarcerated people have been relegated to an outsider status and treated as a novelty for far too long. It is time for society to come to terms with the importance of this art movement and its significance in the rehabilitation of the prison population.
Currently, there are 1.8 million people incarcerated in the United States and 95% of them will be eventually released, according to nonprofit Rehabilitation Through the Arts. Therefore, it is imperative that we assiduously encourage productive behavior and habits in our penal institutions.
To that end, what could be more beneficial than exposure to art forms such as performance, creative writing, music, and visual arts?
Dabbling in the arts inculcates discipline and self-expression, serves as an invaluable outlet for emotions and frustrations, and opens up avenues for teamwork. An apt example is mixed media artist Tameca Cole’s 2016 collage “All Locked in a Dark Calm.”
Forged in a cauldron of cataclysmic vehemence, it radiates nervous energy and simmering anger. While art materials and supplies were scarce in prison, the inner rage and utter desperation that fueled Cole’s creation were not.
As Cole told ARTNews in 2020, “Someone had really, really ticked me off. I really, really had to harness stuff like that, to keep from exploding.”
Take away the arts and what is left is an inhumane system that actively fosters a vicious cycle of violence and recidivism.
Among the most dramatic illustrations of the positive influence of the arts in incarceration is the Rehabilitation Through The Arts program in New York. Stunningly, 60% of those who are released from incarceration will return within three years, belying the claim that prisons by themselves reduce crime, according to RTA.
According to the Journal of Correctional Education, studies have shown that crime during imprisonment and in the community after release had substantially declined in populations engaging in RTA curricula with recidivism dropping to an astonishing 5%.
It is all the more remarkable that RTA is operated by a committee of inmates at each facility, who utilize their different skills to offer various programs. In the end, the success of RTA is based on building “a community of peers that uses the arts as a tool to support emotional, social, and cognitive growth.”
Another such program in California, The Actors’ Gang Prison Project, offers theatrical programs in 13 penitentiaries. Among the 1,000 incarcerated people who have participated, there was an 89% drop in disciplinary incidents and only a 10.6% recidivism rate, compared to 75% in the general prison population, according to a preliminary analysis by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
From the artist’s perspective, institutional art is a profound experience that halts self-destructive behavior, shields sanity, and functions as a form of nonviolent outcry against unjust policies while infusing hope that four walls do not a prison make.
From the observer’s point of view, such art transcends the creators and challenges us with difficult but necessary questions about crime and punishment, deprivation and redemption, race and injustice, and the omnipresent prison-industrial complex.
Editor’s note: The featured photo in this story is from a 2020 L.A. Times story “How an L.A. art show is humanizing the incarcerated during COVID-19” by Makeda Easter.