Prison Arts Collective participants at California Institute for Women gather to create an interactive mandala circle in 2016. (Photo by Peter Merts)

This article was first published by San Quentin News, a prison newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

The universal language of art is being used to transform incarcerated men and women by giving them tools for self-discovery, self-reflection and a process for healing. 

The Prison Arts Collective (PAC) is administered by San Diego State University and its program is available to prisons run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). 

The program was founded to support incarcerated artists. It provides imprisoned artists a platform to share their talents and to inspire, educate, and nurture creative communities inside prisons. 

“Being an alumna of the program, I have seen the program from both sides,” said Wendy Staggs, in an email interview with SQNews. “As a participant, I have watched individuals stop their repeated residencies in suicide watch. (I) have seen them stop using substances, and so much more, just from the act of producing art. 

“I realized then that the arts have the power to transform lives in ways I never thought possible. I indulged and healed and grew,” Staggs added. 

PAC has partnered with California State University Fullerton, California State University Los Angeles, California State University San Bernardino, and Humboldt State University. 

The program conducts art facilitator training for those who are incarcerated. It is a 60-hour program followed by a three-month apprenticeship. Upon completion, students become teachers and can facilitate classes inside their prisons. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the PAC teams provided weekly classes in art history, theory, and creative practice, and reflection in at least 13 state prisons. The organization had to adjust to prison programming closures as the coronavirus raged throughout the state’s prison and jail systems. 

PAC packaged its curriculum and started a correspondence course. It established Outside: Inside Productions, a project that created instructional videos in art, yoga and a podcast that featured the stories of incarcerated artists, writers and musicians. 

“Like everything else around the world, COVID has had a big impact on our program. But it changed how we do our work more than what we do,” said San Diego State University professor Annie Buckley, founder of PAC. “We are still dedicated to expanding the transformative power of the arts to people who are incarcerated. We have just had to find new ways to do that since we can’t go inside the prisons. 

“We are starting to go back into some in-person classes, but not very many. The main thing that we did was create distance learning packets, similar to programs across the country,” Buckley added. 

The correspondence packets were created with the support of the PAC team of faculty, students, and staff from across their university chapters, said Buckley. 

Multidisciplinary art classes, facilitator training and a guest artist program are a few workshops offered by PAC. Also, Project Alice was created to support individuals reentering society. 

“After my release, I became a volunteer, a teacher,” said Staggs. “I wanted to help others discover themselves, just as I had. Challenges are everywhere in everything, and they will remain. We do our best to overcome them. 

“However, the successes are so organic, so natural,” Stagg continued. 

Mark Taylor, another formerly incarcerated volunteer, added, “While I was incarcerated at Ironwood State Prison, all the men in PAC classes really enjoyed them, me included. 

“With the guidance of PAC staff, I was able to create an amends-focused creative writing curriculum that helped me with deep introspection and transformation. 

“I believe in this program so much that I continued to volunteer with them once I was released,” said Taylor. 

Some of the PAC programs were designed from within the prison walls. Its Peer Leaders program was started at the California Institution for Men, where the incarcerated participants developed bylaws, helped monitor supplies, and assisted teachers in classes. 

The Arts Facilitator Training program was created in Ironwood State Prison. 

“I don’t go into the prisons, but I am always inspired hearing the stories and reading the feedback from current and past Arts in Corrections participants,” said Arts in Corrections program manager Mariana Moscoso to SQNews. “From my perspective, art is the portal to our collective liberation — it is the space where we can imagine and experience other possibilities for ourselves and our world. 

“Since art can serve as a portal, I believe it is essential to healing because the creator can create and control the conditions of their imagination. They can imagine a version of themselves that is joyful, healed, or in community. Imagination is the beginning of all human endeavor,” Moscoso added. 

PAC advocates for the immense power of creativity despite the limitations of incarceration. 

“Art has the capacity to change hearts and minds by opening us up to who we are and giving us empathy to understand others,” said Buckley. “I believe the unique and creative way that art allows us to connect to ourselves and others is vital to all people, and for those experiencing difficult times it can be a lifeline. 

“I think for people experiencing incarceration, the way that art invites rather than commands — to make something new or see another perspective … it helps people locate aspects of their identity apart from the fact that they are in prison,” she added. 

Being vulnerable in prison can be challenging, but art can offer a kind of freedom of mind and heart. However, some may question art as a form of rehabilitation. 

“People who have never been incarcerated or affected by the system see the incarcerated community as criminals,” said Staggs. “They can’t fathom that those (who) volunteer would want to offer them (the incarcerated) programs such as art, nor do they see how they are deserving of such a privilege. 

“Up to 90% of incarcerated people will come back into your community. Wouldn’t it be better to help these people heal and give them some necessary outlets to work through their traumas that occurred before their incarceration? We need to see every human with eyes of love,” Staggs concluded.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Edwin E. Chavez

Edwin E. Chavez is a writer incarcerated in California.