Highlights from the Ethnomusicology Archive: California-Arts-in-Corrections

Arts in Corrections was a unit within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that contracted with independent community service organizations and professional artists to provide arts programs within correctional institutions. The program began as the pilot William James Association Prison Arts Project at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville in 1977 with funding provided by the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. The success of this initial program led to the Legislature appropriating $400,000 to augment the 1981 Department of Corrections budget, establishing the Arts in Corrections unit within the department's Office of Community Resources Development. The Arts in Corrections budget initially funded a program manager, six full-time civil service artist facilitators, and contracts with professional artists as well as community arts organizations, and monies for supplies, equipment, and facilities. Over the next three decades following the program's inception, the William James Association and Artsreach (UCLA Extension) partnered with Arts in Corrections to manage the hiring, artist residency design and training, as well as the implementation and evaluation of the arts programs. Professional artists provided instruction in painting, drawing, sculpture, murals, photography, poetry, creative writing, theater, and music. The William James Association and Artsreach also sponsored state-wide competitions and exhibitions outside of the walls of the institutions. By the 1990s, Arts in Corrections had fully operational studios and placed on-site arts professionals as staff in every state correctional and rehabilitation institution in California, becoming the largest institutionally-based arts program in the United States. Due to the state's budget crisis, in 2009, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation laid off staff in education, vocational, substance abuse, and other inmates programs, including the one Artist Facilitator at each prison/institution, concurrently eliminating the Arts in Corrections program.  In June 2014, after a five-year absence, the Arts-in-Corrections programs returned to California State Prisons.

The Ethnomusicology Archive holds audiovisual materials from the Arts in Correction program dating from 1979 to 2009.  Nearly 200 recordings in a wide variety of formats (U-matic, Video8, Hi 8, VHS and audio cassettes) were donated to the Archive from the William James Association in large part thanks to then UCLA Ethnomusicology graduate student, now Georgetown Professor, Ben Harbert.  As many of you might know, Ben's doctoral research was on music in three Louisiana prisons and he was producer and director of Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians.

Many of the video recordings are now available at California Light and Sound Collection on the Internet Archive.  (And more are forthcoming!)  California Light and Sound is a project of the California Audiovisual Preservation Project (CAVPP).  You can browse the Ethnomusicology Archive channel or search for the Arts in Corrections recordings using the subject headings "Arts in prisons," "Music in prisons" or by searching for the specific prison. 

I thought I would highlight a few of the recordings. 


An Impact Production, 1982. Interviews with inmates, correctional officers, instructors, Arts in Corrections coordinators, Bill Cleveland, Director, Arts in Corrections, State of California and Ruth Rushen, Director, Department of Corrections, State of California. Music and art created by inmates in the California prison system. Produced by Eric Thiermann, Mark Schwartz. Directed and photographed by Eric Thiermann. Edited by Mark Schwartz.


1980.  Interviews with inmates in the Arts-in-Corrections program, including Vern McKee. McKee is credited with being the inspiration behind the Arts-in-Corrections program.


News story on Arts-in-Corrections by KOVR13 News


Arnold and Ahneva from One-on-One by video artist, Wendy Clark. One on One (1991) is a series of video dialogues between prisoners at the California Institution for Men in Chino and members of the Crenshaw business community and the Church in Ocean Park in Santa Monica. They were taped by Clarke throughout 1991. The 15 prisoners who volunteered were all nearing release and were in a video class taught by Clarke at Chino, where she was an artist-in-residence. Clarke had each inmate make an introductory tape that she then showed to the non-prisoners she had recruited, letting the outsiders choose the prisoner with whom they wanted to communicate. Once the pairings had been made, Clarke carried tapes back and forth, getting each one's video response to the others. Clarke did place a restriction on the video partners, forbidding them to have contact beyond the tapes.


Ishmael Reed, author and activist, December 4th, 1979 at the California Medical Facility, Vacaville. Reed is the winner of the MacArthur Fellowship (genius award), the L.A. Times Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award. He has been nominated for a Pulitzer, was a finalist for two National Book Awards and is Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.


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