The Arts
July 12-19, 2006

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But Does It Really Matter?

Three current San Quentin inmates make the case for prison arts programs

By Laura Mattingly

Some may question the lowered recidivism rates of participants in prison arts programs. Isn't it possible that such programs simply attract the most well-adjusted inmates?

But that hasn't been Steve Emrick's experience. "I have one guy in my program who honestly says if he wasn't involved in the arts he'd be in the hole [solitary confinement]," says the Artists Facilitator for San Quentin Prison, the location of the last remaining comprehensive Prison Arts program. "And what that translates to is that he found something he likes doing that makes him feel good about himself. And he likes it enough that he'll avoid conflict to be able to continue going to classes."

Emrick, who has worked at San Quentin for the last three years (and, before that, at two other California prisons as well as the California Youth Authority), has seen the Prison Arts program greatly improve inmates' behavior. "Back in the heyday of the program, conflicts between groups would be suspended because they knew there was going to be a music group coming in or a performance, and there would be truces called to allow the arts to happen that way."

During an interview by speaker-phone, Emrick gathered together three San Quentin inmates to share their experiences in the last thriving prison arts program in California.

"In prison you tend to move toward things that are more gratifying than you would on the streets," says fifth-year inmate Ronin, who did not give his full name. He has participated in a production of John Brown's Body as well as a number of Shakespeare workshops. "Because so little is offered, when you get a chance to do something that you would normally walk right by on the streets, you take a hold of it."

"I've been educated on levels I never would have pursued on the streets," he added.

In regard to the dramatic productions, Ronin says, "It's very gratifying to be able to finish something. By giving guys like me a chance to see the results of something I've been doing--absolutely beneficial. It helps me greatly. It gives me something to be proud of."

Chris Rich has participated in the Prison Arts program as a musician for 3 1/2 years, having requested to be transferred to San Quentin specifically for the program.

"I play guitar in a band," says Rich. "I repair musical instruments and amplifiers, and participate in the Shakespeare program here."

Rich's music accompanies the Shakespeare productions. "Playing in a band context, we get to work together, and we may take something just as simple as a song, but it's four or five guys working together on doing the best they can on that song."

"There's a good chance I'll be at San Quentin until the day I die," says Rich. "I'm serving a life-sentence for first degree murder."

"If I have to be on my deathbed someday in prison, I'd like to at least be able to say I did the best I could. And I think these types of programs at least allow a person the choice to improve themselves as a person."

Michael Willis has been at San Quentin and participating in the program for 13 months. He takes the creative writing workshops, and writes poetry and novels.

"I'm a three-striker, I don't know where this is going because the public has misconceptions about what three-strikers are and what they represent."

Willis has no illusions about his chances of being released, but is still making plans for what he might do someday outside of San Quentin.

"First of all, I would like to get involved in the community doing Shakespeare, because it's an phenomenal opportunity. I have found out that there's more to me than I initially thought there was. I have gained more of an understanding of myself and my capabilities."

"I'd also like to work on getting more of my literature published in book form, I'd also like to be able to go into communities and let youth know that there are alternatives to gangs and drugs and that they can get involved and they can create art programs in their own neighborhoods," says Willis.

"I'd like to see what we're doing here spread throughout the state and spread throughout the United States. Because what we're doing here is not only important for us, but for the arts themselves. Because there is a lot of talent here. And the community outside, whether we're released or not, needs to know that there is some beauty inside of here too."

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