Art Behind Bars

Angel, one of the prisoner-artists at the California Institute for Men in Chino, shows a guest around the installation portion of the collaborative multidisciplinary performance piece “Redemption."
Angel, one of the prisoner-artists at the California Institute for Men in Chino, shows a guest around the installation portion of the collaborative multidisciplinary performance piece “Redemption."
Prison Projects Rehabilitate Through Creativity

It’s a lot like visiting a high school. Strict dress code, cell phone blackout, dusty exercise yard, assembly in the gymnasium, rows of folding chairs, color Xeroxed programs with lyrics and special thanks — take one, pass the rest on.

But this is the California Institute for Men in Chino, and while a lot of the incarcerated men are still young, none of them are kids, not anymore. On this, the culminating day of an intensive, interdisciplinary collaborative arts workshop, there are about 60 people in the room — a dozen inmates on stage and another score in the audience; 10 art instructors and support staff from the Prison Arts Collective team; a handful of reporters; and a small cadre of guards and institutional chaperones. The gym is a monumental work of art. Inmates started their own mural project five years ago, and many dozens of them have contributed.

The Community-Based Art (CBA) Prison Arts Collective program is directed by artist/writer Annie Buckley, an associate professor at California State University, San Bernardino, in collaboration with students, alumni, and volunteer artists and writers. For the past five years, the project has taught roughly 30 weekly arts classes at four state prisons, including the men’s and women’s institutions in Chino. Since 2015, the program has been part of Arts in Corrections, an initiative of the California Department of Corrections and the California Arts Council. When Buckley was inviting guests to witness the performances, she promised that the, “level of dialogue, art historical knowledge, creative talent” would be impressively strong, proving the “transformative power of art and creative innovation happening through arts and rehabilitation.” And she did not disappoint.

This day’s program comprised a sculptural installation of a walk-in word cloud, plus songs and readings. A procession of individual stories were highlighted and then absorbed back into the narrative. Single words transformed into visuals and dialogue, prefaced with an unspoken “I am” Grandpa, Husband, Son, Human, Brother, Peer. “Peer,” an older inmate said, “is both a noun and a verb. “I am a Brother,” continued a younger inmate, “to my family, and a brother to you all.” There is applause. A baby-faced painter holding his own handmade pop-up illustration of a jolly panda told the audience, “I lost my freedom long before I came to prison. Now inside a life sentence I am learning to be truly free.”

Ezekiel is a natural leader, charismatic and handsome, and he speaks with passion on the group’s behalf: “We’ve never had the opportunity to express ourselves like this, never had this kind of support.” The inmates welcomed the idea that everybody has a voice. “It took a minute,” Ezekiel says. “Being receptive to other people’s creativity” was largely unchartered territory. Another participant, Robert, nicknamed Mr. Lexicon for his pun-based illustrations, was thrilled “just to have someone to talk to about art” and told how before the advent of art supplies, the inmates used to make paint by sucking the coatings off Skittles and M&Ms. All participants in the program said they now plan to pursue art, whether inside or outside. Their show was titled “Redemption.”

One of dozens of handmade paper shoes made by the artists at the California Institution for Women in Chino that came together to create the art installation “City Without a Name.”

The women’s prison was nearby but a world away. The inmates moved freely among shade trees and low brick buildings; new construction was everywhere in evidence and the “old chapel” building where their culminating art, poetry, and performance took place looked every bit the small town community center. The folding chairs were in a circle, not rows, the work was displayed and performed in the round; the audience was standing-room only, full of friends and family from the outside.

The ceiling was festooned with raw, folksy tissue-paper fairies and floral garlands, the floor arrayed with a colorful heart-shaped pathway lined with decorated paper shoes, each with the maker’s story written inside. The path wound its way around a downtown, a prison, a field. Rocks gathered from the yard inscribed with words of encouragement and enlightenment will be placed outdoors for unknown others to discover in their own time.

The poems started. A warm, steely woman named Gregoria read from her own work, “I want to contribute to my community, but how?” Amber said she has a plan to sell her art on Kickstarter to fund a legal defense. “Beyond the cloud is an enormous space full of endless opportunities,” recited Mercedez, from a poem written collaboratively by all 15 women. The spiritual and admittedly volatile Mercedez said, “My body is here, but my mind never is.”

As with the men, the women’s show was followed by a Q&A in which all were encouraged to speak. A woman clad in bright fairy pink said with emotion and unsettling gratitude that inside, she finally felt free from the menaces of the outside. Rebecca said candidly, “If I’d know I had this kind of creativity inside me back then, all this might have been avoided.” The group work was titled “City Without a Name.” The tall, shy Valerie ended by saying, “I would name this city Passion.”


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