Published in The Orange County Register, August 17, 2015. By Tom Berg, Staff Writer
Troy Williams is talking on the phone about the first time he performed Shakespeare – as an inmate at San Quentin State Prison – when he interrupts himself.
“I see it right now,” he says as he drives to work, midway across a San Francisco Bay bridge.
“Every time I drive by San Quentin, those same feelings come up: happiness, sadness and fear all wrapped up in one.”
Williams, 48, served 18 years in state prison for robbery and kidnapping, and one thing that helped him regain his footing was studying Shakespeare.
The first time he saw inmates rehearsing, he thought, “That’s weird.” But he also admired their courage. So he gave it a try – and was further rewarded with a standing ovation from 400 inmates and visitors.
That experience and a writing program helped him turn inward for the first time. He studied his own emotions and motivations, and eventually contributed his writing to four books published by other inmates.
He was paroled in November . Now he’s a freelance journalist, a videographer and, you could say, the poster child for a state program once given up for dead – Arts in Corrections.
The idea is making a revival, and a two-year, $2.5 million pilot program is aimed at bringing arts back into the prisons in the form of everything from music to painting to theater. And the Muckenthaler Cultural Center of Fullerton is one of 10 organizations leading the way.
“Any time you bring art where there isn’t any, it’s like shining a light in the dark,” says Zoot Velasco, executive director of the Muckenthaler, which this summer was awarded $86,000 to provide programs at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe and High Desert State Prison in Susanville.
Evidence suggests arts programs reduce prison segregation, violence and recidivism.
A 1987 state Department of Corrections study showed that recidivism among inmates in the arts programs, two years after their release, dropped by nearly 40 percent.
But given that 7 out of 10 prisoners will go free eventually, Williams suggests art is more powerful than mere statistics.
“Who do you want coming home? The bad-ass gang banger, or the guy with some emotional awareness?” asks Williams of Oakland as San Quentin recedes in his rearview mirror.
“One of us is coming home. The question society has to answer is: ‘Which one do you want?”
UPS AND DOWNS
California pioneered the concept of art-as-rehabilitation.
In 1977, artist Eloise Smith, then the director of the California Arts Council, proposed the idea of art in prison as a way to “provide an opportunity where a man can gain the satisfaction of creation rather than destruction.”
She found private funding to launch an arts program in one prison, and it grew to six prisons. In 1980, California became the first state to fund a professional arts program – named Arts in Corrections – throughout its prison system.
“It was recognized as an international model for arts in corrections,” says Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, which again is administering the program.
In 1983, University of San Francisco professor Larry Brewster performed a financial analysis at four prisons that found benefits from the program more than doubled the costs. He also found that inmates in the arts program were 75 percent less likely than others to face disciplinary actions.
“It’s critically important,” Brewster says of the program he’s now studied for three decades. “It instills a work ethic and self-confidence.
“People in the arts programs don’t cause problems because they don’t want to lose the privilege of being in the program.”
Carol Hinds of Hawthorne saw this firsthand with her son Adam, 32, who is serving his 15th year in state prison.
Hinds won’t say what her son is in for – the fact that he was 18 years old and received a sentence of 25-years to life is enough, she says, adding: “Prison yard politics were there to greet him, and he felt that there was no walking away from them having briefly been involved on the outside.”
In 2003, Adam took guitar lessons at California State Prison, Sacramento. Then creative writing.
“I could see it in his face,” she says. “His shoulders were lower; he looked calmer and happier.
“That was my boy I got back.”
For 20 years, California was the granddaddy of prison fine-arts programs, but over the years, the political tide turned.
By 2000, state budget cuts began to squeeze prison arts dry. In 2003, the program lost most of its funding, and by 2010 it had lapsed altogether.
Some arts programs continued to work with inmates – the Prison Arts Project, Marin Shakespeare Co. and the Actors’ Gang – but they were privately funded.
Success of prisoners in those programs, and an improved economy, sparked the revival.
In 2013, Actors’ Gang founder Tim Robbins, who starred in the 1994 prison- escape movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” wrote an editorial describing how the arts program changed destructive behaviors and transformed lives.
The state Legislature held hearings that year and, in 2014, it authorized $2.5 million for a two-year pilot program reinstating Art in Corrections.
In both 2014 and 2015, the program turned to the Muckenthaler for help.
Muckenthaler director Velasco admits the arts program isn’t a cure-all. Some inmates don’t want to change; others seek change through religion or education. For many, however, the arts program is transformative.
“Without it,” he adds, “those people would not have a way to find themselves.”
The Muckenthaler will provide prisoners with several three-hour classes, led by performing artists, in music, visual arts and theater. The artists included painter Jim Dahl, guitarmaker Jason Farthing and storyteller Michael McCarty, who returns for his second year.
“Everyone has at least one story that they need to tell,” McCarty says. “My job is to help find that story.”
McCarty calls storytelling a super-power that changes lives.
“It gives them a tool to communicate. And that gives them hope.”
It gives hope to observers too.
Peter Merts, 64, of San Rafael volunteered to photograph the arts program 10 years ago – and he’s never quit.
“People think of inmates as animals,” he says. “I see something very different. And I’m trying to change the image that people have in mind.”
That’s not to say that there are not violent prisoners, he says. There are. But many want to change. He’s seen them up close singing, dancing, painting, performing plays, writing.
“The art room in San Quentin is like a magical place,” he says. “All the rules are different than outside that room.”
As a free man, Troy Williams drives within view of San Quentin almost every day. And it conjures up the same feelings every time.
“I’m happy because I’m out,” he explains. “I’m sad because I know others who are still stuck in there. And I’m fearful because I never want to have that experience again.”
He admits guilt for taking part in a four-man robbery of a computer-parts store in 1994 in which 14 victims were tied, beaten and threatened.
No one was killed, but some were harmed. “I can’t remove myself from that,” Williams says. “I was there, participating. I have to take ownership.”
He served 18 years for his role in that crime.
“The only emotions I ever felt safe to show were aggression and anger,” he says.
And then he joined a prison writing class. That led to Shakespeare. And both led to change.
“I used to be very impulsive,” Williams says. “If someone pissed me off, I socked them in the face. Now when things come up, I analyze them. To be a writer, you need to understand why this is coming up so you can explain it.”
He began to organize job fairs, health fairs and self-help workshops. He co-founded “San Quentin Prison Report,” which airs on KALW 91.7 FM public radio in San Francisco. He directed San Quentin’s Restorative Justice Roundtable and increased participation from 40 to 200 prisoners.
Two weeks after his release in November, the Society of Professional Journalists presented Williams with an excellence-in-journalism award for writing, producing and editing radio programs in prison. He now is a freelance columnist for the Oakland Post and produces independent radio and video reports about social change.
“Some days, I walk down the street and I’m not letting anybody walk past me without a smile,” he says.
Driving on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge – with San Quentin behind him and a new job ahead – he sounds thoughtful and upbeat.
He sounds … rehabilitated.
“Many people focus exclusively on the ‘corrections’ part of the title “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” says California Arts Council Director Watson.
“But if we’re committed to returning prisoners to their communities, it’s essential that we reinvest in their rehabilitation. And the arts is a proven strategy for improving their success.”
Just ask Williams.
“All my life, I just wanted to be seen and heard,” he says. “I had a story I wanted to tell.”
He learned to tell it in prison.
Staff writer Lou Ponsi contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 714-796-6892 firstname.lastname@example.org