What Value The Arts In Prison?

I was surprised to see my home town newspaper mentioned on the Americans for the Arts blog recently. Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Manager, John Abodeely, was responding to a story about how inmates from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility were being blocked from performing at Eastern Correctional Facility by the corrections guard union. (Eastern Correctional Facility apparently inspires a lot of art. I once wrote a short story based *cough* on my time spent there.)

Abodeely responds to the union’s central argument that there is no value in the experience. “How many of these medium-security convicts do you think will go to Broadway and get a job?” One answer is Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes–six Tony nominations, New York Drama Critics Circle Award and an Obie Award. Another is Charles Dutton. These are just off the top of my head. I am sure there are other examples.

Abodeely discusses the economic value of the arts in terms of jobs, revenue and taxes generated. I think Abodeely misses the mark on two counts. First, regardless of the economic impact statistics, it is difficult for people with arts backgrounds to gain employment in their field, whether it be on Broadway or not. An ex-con probably has just as good a chance of being employed as anyone. (So on second thought, I guess Abodeely’s numbers are valid when applied to the convicts.)

But the second point is the real issue. The subtext of the question the corrections officer posed was all about low regard for the convicts’ personal value and had little to do with economics at all. Perhaps it is clearer to me because I have been in NY prisons, but the guards’ power to deny positive experiences for inmates is a big factor here. Given the union spokesman’s assertion that “prison farms, annexes and print shops have been useful because they teach skills that can be applied toward a job on the outside,” a more compelling argument would be based on evidence of how engaging in any sort of disciplined program is beneficial to future employment and behavior in the present. There is also public speaking skills, writing skills (since the inmates wrote the play) and development of empathy that can be gained. (Construction and other organizational skills if they are building sets and costumes.)

Abodeely wouldn’t likely have the research or numbers on hand to cite, but there may be some evidence that it reduces recidivism, especially given that is the sponsoring organization, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, goal. The San Quentin Drama Workshop has been active since 1958 so even if there is no clear evidence arts in prison does not reduce recidivism, there must be some value to sustaining the program for 51 years. There is also group, Theatre in Prisons which runs similar programs internationally.

What really makes me believe that the union’s objections on the grounds theatre involvement doesn’t cultivate valuable skills is the fact that Rehabilitation Through the Arts not only does shows at the maximum security NY State run prison, Sing-Sing, but has been based out of there since 1996 and apparently has proven valuable enough to satisfy the corrections officers who I am pretty sure belong to the same union. Pinero wrote Short Eyes while incarcerated in Sing-Sing in 1972 and there was apparently a drama program of some sort there at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not really a big advocate for convict rights. I didn’t particularly enjoy being dragged on visits as part of my mother’s effort to redeem these guys. (Though I does allow me to truthfully say I was in and out of prison for 9 years.) Like most of us, I am not about to allow someone to dismiss the value of participation in the arts out of hand without some rebuttal.

I suppose no discussion of performing arts in prison can be complete without citing the 1500 Filipino prisoners in Cebu doing Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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1 thought on “What Value The Arts In Prison?”

  1. This is a wonderful response to both my economic argument and the union spokesperson’s misperception. I appreciate your elegant statements about arts experiences imparting skills valuable to employment–sometimes called “soft skills.” Thanks for sharing it.

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