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California Arts-in-Corrections profiled in the New York Times

Saturday, July 02, 2011 11:21 AM | Alma Robinson (Administrator)

Adam Nagourney's recent New York Times article (6/30/11) on the demise of arts-in-corrections programs in California provides a lively sketch of Tim Robbins' work at the California Rehabilitation Center.  

You can't argue against the benefits of these programs: artists help inmates build their self-esteem, offering a channel for emotional release and reducing disciplinary incidents because people learn how to work together and how to get along.  They are also motivated to stay out of trouble.  Nagourney cited many benefits of arts-in-corrections programs but stated that there is "no conclusive evidence" that they reduce recidivism.   

In fact, California Department of Corrections research on outcomes for parolees released between 1980 and 1987, when these programs were flourishing, concluded that "Arts-in-Corrections participants had a significantly higher percentage of favorable outcomes than the CDC total population studied for the same time period." Two years after release, arts in corrections parolees had a 69.2% favorable status, meaning they had not returned to state prison, compared to 42% for others.

We are therefore advocating for the restoration of arts-in-corrections as a cost-saving and humane measure.  Arts programs reduce the cost of disciplinary incidents, help inmates restore their dignity, prepare them for life outside, and reduce recidivism.


Yes, you could use these same arguments for arts in education, adding: problem solving skills, motivation to stay in school, brain development that fosters other kinds of learning, and self-management skills, such as the ability to focus, to target goals and to realize internal satisfaction.   

As we watch California's social networks fall apart, we have a big job ahead to make sure that the resources that support creativity, discipline and teamwork--as essential qualities needed by all--aren't lost in the budget shuffles.  

Someone should do the math:  Fewer art and music programs in schools correlate with higher drop out rates.  Higher drop out rates correlate with higher illiteracy.  Higher illiteracy correlates with higher incarceration rates, and, as a result, the social and economic burdens to society have mushroomed to the breaking point.   

This spring, in coordination with colleagues at the William James Association and California Arts Advocates and with the support of the Wallace A. Gerbode Foundation, we mounted a major effort to restore arts in corrections as part of the Governor's Corrections budget.   We got sympathetic support from several key legislators but a modest $1 million allocation to restore arts facilitators in the state prisons was eliminated during the final budget conference for the Corrections Department.  The big issue for Sacramento this year is prison realignment:  the State is under federal court orders to reduce the overcrowding in the prison system and Gov. Brown has chosen "realignment" as a key strategy to achieve this goal--thousands of non-violent inmates will be returned or retained in their home counties for incarceration in the county jails.  

Now we are encouraged by the interest of local arts agencies across California in approaching their elected County Sheriffs about including arts in the menu of rehabilitation services they will provide for this new influx of inmates. If you are interested in playing a role in such work, either as an advocate or a provider, please get in touch with your local arts agencies and let them know.  

The California Arts Council maintains a list of local arts agencies at

If you have further thoughts, feel free to join the conversation here.  Have a happy and safe Fourth of July and let's stay INDEPENDENT!

Alma Robinson, Executive Director
California Lawyers for the Arts



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