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Coda on Arts-in-Corrections

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 3:34 PM | Alma Robinson (Administrator)

As part of our effort to demonstrate the power of the arts in rehabilitation, California Lawyers for the Arts is working with the William James Association to provide arts classes in county jails and state prisons.  In August, with the support of San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, we started a new gospel music choir for women at the SF County Jail. Leah Garchik wrote about the class in her column on culture and politics in the SF Chronicle.     

While the choral singing is led by Emma Jean Foster, who facilitates a group in "Healing Thru Negro Spirituals" at Glide Memorial Church, I provide conflict resolution and communications skill-building exercises drawn from our mediation program. Larry Brewster, Professor of Public Administration at the University of San Francisco, is administering "pre and post" surveys designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the arts-in-corrections project.

At the end of one recent class, I complimented the group on their impressive growth in listening skills and their ability to pay attention during our 3 and 1/2 weeks together. I asked the group to reflect on what they were taking away from the workshop.  Our soloist responded, "Team work--we're all making suggestions and no one is putting anyone down."  I reminded them of our "yes/and" versus "yes/but" exercise from a couple of weeks ago.  Another participant said she had learned that it was okay to make a mistake.  I responded that we all make mistakes.  (Our musical form is gospel, i.e., "call and response"--right?)  

Another singer said she felt so much support from the group, that "we have each other's backs and look out for each other."  Another said they can sense when something is wrong with one of their mates, and we discussed how to be supportive, to help each other stay off the "edge."   A woman who had, at the beginning the class, shared a conflict that she's having with a staff member, said that she was going to take away the simple chart that I'd handed out at the beginning -- "win/win"   "win/lose"  "lose/win" or "lose/lose" -- and consider how she could work with that concept going forward.  We ended the session with a couple of minutes of silence and deep breathing. 

Finally, I invited them to think about the simple word, thank you, and use it, try it out on people you think are giving you a hard time.  I then thanked our coordinator, Yolanda Robinson, for making it possible for us to have the class.  Some participants thanked Emma Jean for leading the chorus.  Many agreed that thank you is an important word to use.

Emma and I had a chance to debrief as we left the facility.  She said she almost cried when listening to their reflections. I shared that after speaking about this transformation as "theory" for two years, I am now experiencing it first hand, and it truly is amazing.

You could provide many of these same "conflict resolution skills," which we're organizing as five-minute tuneups for this context, in classes on anger management, restorative justice, etc., and they are no doubt helpful.  But when you use the arts as a metaphor, and build off of everyone's best effort to contribute to a greater good, you have found a path to these life lessons-- to harmony -- which is heartfelt and joyful.  

I feel privileged to be able to do this work as part of our mission at CLA--it's really all coming home for me. I also believe that we can have no greater calling in the arts, than combining teaching the arts with critically needed problem solving skills.  If we lift up the most disadvantaged members of our society, we also help lift up their families and our communities. 

We have also had glancing conversations about "recidivism."  A week ago, I challenged one woman who was complaining about being moved from one pod to another because of her behavior:  "This is not your home.  This is temporary."   She processed that and responded, "Yeah, it's like camp."  Everybody laughed. And my response: "And you're not coming back, right?"

We also help inmates who are released with their transition back into their communities. One of our participants approached Emma Jean and asked if she could join her choir at Glide after her release.  There, she will find a supportive group of singers who will help to welcome her home.

In July, Craig Watson, the director of the California Arts Council, and I met with Dr. Jeffrey Beard, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The CDCR is seeking ways to re-institutionalize these programs with the support of CAC leadership and administrative infrastructure. Current negotiations between the State Senate, led by President Darrell Steinberg, and Governor Brown have focused on rehabilitation, providing an opening for including the arts in strategies to reduce recidivism.

If this was a storm, we could say we are in the eye of it.  But--no, "and"--while the storm of realignment is still passing through--the tides of punishment versus rehabilitation are shifting--and the light of civilization is peeking out. Through the fog, we can almost see the bridge.   

As Sen. Loni Hancock said at a public meeting two years ago responding to my nearly breathless description of the value of arts-in-corrections:  "if it works in corrections, it might work in education!"   And the choir said, silently, "Amen!"

Alma Robinson, Executive Director
California Lawyers for the Arts




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