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Some state prisons are turning to art to help inmates rehabilitate

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Juan Sanchez says he feels a lot of things when he paints.

"It's like an escape for me," he says. He's not a working artist per se, but he does make some money off his paintings—usually $50 bucks or so for the prison canteen.

I hit bottom when I ended up in the hole, and the only thing I missed back there was this, was doing my art.
Juan Sanchez, Project PAINT inmate

Sanchez is an inmate at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. Through Project PAINT, he's able to take art classes a few times a week.

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Mickey, a participant in Project PAINT, shows his work.

“Project PAINT, I think it saved my life," says Sanchez, who's in prison for first-degree murder. "I was an addict. I can say a hardcore addict. I hit bottom when I ended up in the hole, and the only thing I missed back there was this, was doing my art.”

Almost half of prisoners who leave California state prisons end up behind bars within three years, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. By creating art, Project PAINT is trying to show them a path to success. Outside of a program like this, it can be hard for an inmate to get his hands on even a color pencil.

Here we get an opportunity to be creative, be personal, where perhaps on the yard, we’re impersonal.
Russell Pence, Project PAINT inmate

“Arts programs in prison have an amazing history," says Laura Pecenco, the founding director of Project PAINT. "They’ve been shown to reduce rates of recidivism, but also things like rates of institutional violence, so how safe is the prison for inmates but also for officers?”

The sociologist started the program five years ago through the Arts in Corrections initiative from the state of California. The $8 million program, which is in partnership with the California Arts Council, aims to promote rehabilitation and safe conditions in and out of prison. It's now in all 35 of the state's correctional institutions. The program is betting big on the disciplinary effects of art. A 1987 study (before the program went dormant for a few years due to budget cuts) showed that the arts improved behavior, reduced inmate conflict and recidivism.

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“And here we get an opportunity to be creative, be personal, where perhaps on the yard, we’re impersonal," said Russell Pence, an inmate.

The effects of the program might extend beyond the cell. Bobby Preston, who was in prison for 11 years for attempted murder, was recently released. He says the program helped him transition back to normal life.

"I feel that the way I learn to interact with people and express myself artistically helps me transcend certain social barriers that I believe I was handicapped by before I entered the program," said Preston, 31, who now lives the Los Angeles area.

Prison arts
Inmate Juan Sanchez shows a painting he made for his friend.

By painting, inmates can have their sentence commuted. And experts say more correctional facilities are starting to use the arts as a reward.

“The inmates who participate tend to want to stay out of trouble to avoid disciplinary infractions, so that they’ll be able to continue to participate," says Jeff Schwartz, president of LETRA, Inc., a criminal justice training and consulting organization. "It’s very important to those individuals.”

For some, it's also a chance to share their work with the world. In 2015, Project PAINT partnered with a San Diego museum to showcase the inmates' paintings.

You’re not thinking about the legalities of your case.
William Viltz, Project PAINT inmate
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“I never had work in any galleries or nothing like that, so to me it was a new experience," said Sanchez. "And not only to me, but for my family to see my work in the Oceanside Museum of Arts.”

Prison arts 2
Mickey receives some tips from his instructor, Kathleen.

Other states, like Louisiana and New York, have similar programs in place. A 2014% study in the Justice Policy Journal found that 60% of students thought that Arts-in-Corrections programs help them better get along with fellow prisoners.

"We're not getting in arguments or fights," said Mickey, an inmate who's been in Project PAINT classes for two months. "Here, people are admiring other works."

“There’s a peace," said William Viltz. "You’re not thinking about the legalities of your case. You’re not thinking about the politics that go on in the news and in prison. It’s a way to vent.”

Should more prisons have arts programs?
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Related stories on Circa:
Life is changing in Texas prisons because of a seminary behind bars
This kitchen is turning former foster kids and prisoners into chefs
He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Now he's free.

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