For decades, California has implemented different art classes and programs in prisons and they’ve proved highly successful in improving inmates attitudes, behavior and self-worth.
The Wichita County Sheriff’s Office was recently awarded a grant to start an art program in the county jail.
This program is the first of its kind in Texas.. and those who run it say it is all about making a difference in the lives of those who are locked up by showing them that art can provide hope for a much brighter future.
“They are coming home sooner or later. Do you want them to come back with hate in their eyes or hope in their hearts?” A quote by Elvera Voth from the Art in Prison program in Kansas that Christine Heidebrecht, Education Coordinator at Kemp Center for the Arts, said explains exactly how she feels about the program.
For several years Wichita County inmates who displayed good behavior were put in the Sheriff Inmate Work Program, where they do different types of jobs for non-profits around the county.
“The Kemp Center for the Arts and the Women’s Forum first asked us to help offset expenditures by doing manual labor on their lawn,” Jason Shepherd, Work Program Supervisor, said.
Shepherd said in his 11 years of being the supervisor due to the hard work of his crew the number of nonprofits they service has grown from just three to 47.
“I’ve had people tell me they need to be on the side of the highway in a ball and chain picking up trash, 100-degree heat,” Shepherd said. “They’re still people. The work they do is hard work. They’ve had very few days where it’s easy and they deserve to be recognized for it.”
Staff members at the Kemp Center for the Arts took note of the inmate’s artistic abilities.
“I’ve seen dream catchers. I’ve seen portraits. Family photos. Freelance artwork. Just random drawings, but the imagination is amazing. It truly is,” Shepherd said.
“Art isn’t just about learning how to properly shade things, learning the colors that match or the colors that are discordant to each other,” Heidebrecht said. “Art is what it brings to each person.”
Heidebrecht said she realized the importance and the value of introducing an art program into the jail.
“Even if they don’t plan on following any kind of a career in the arts,” Heidebrecht said. “The arts are a fun way of learning the life skills of starting off with a problem and getting to a solution.”
With the help of a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Wichita County Sheriff’s Office and the Kemp are working to design an art program for inmates to reach their own solutions.
“I’ve done a little art,” said Travis Platt, who is part of the Sheriff Inmate Work Program. “Last time I was here on the work program, I painted some fence pickets that are on display and I do a little a doodlin’.”
“A lot of people in jails and prisons can draw real good,” Justin Brown, also part of the Sheriff Inmate Work Program, said. “Best art I’ve ever seen has been in prison. I can’t even draw stick figures but my officer Shep said there’s more to art than just drawing.”
More to life like making significant changes in a person’s life, some studies show involvement in the arts can provide a safe way to release and deal with feelings such as anger and aggression.
“Things like their self development so that it improves their motivation. It improves their social skills and life skills in general. Being able to take what they’ve learned inside and taking it back into the world with them,” Heidebrecht said.
“You know, it helps remind us that we’re human too,” Platt said. “You know, people make mistakes. You know, I’m trying to learn from mine.”
“We’ve made mistakes,” said Brown. “We’re people. Anybody can get thrown in jail.”
By focusing on art, Wichita County Sheriff David Duke said they can look to the future through a new lens.
“They get out of jail, take care of their problems, and go on in life to do something dealing with art and graphics and things like that and we have had inmates that have done that in the past,” Duke said. “Anytime that you can help somebody get out of the hole that’s what we want to do.”
Heidebrecht said hopefully the arts will allow them to express themselves and their creativity.
“I know that I as a person, want to be able to put hope back in people’s hearts and that each inmate out there has someone who cares for them that has no family connection to them, no prior connection to them that just wants to acknowledge them as another human being in this world and that we’re all here to help each other,” Heidebrecht said.
And to show them we are all works in progress and regardless of the past, your future is a blank canvas.
A teacher from the Kemp Center for the Arts has volunteered to instruct the class which should begin sometime this year.