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Visual arts teacher Julie McNeil stands with two of her students at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. | Photo by Peter Merts (Courtesy of Julie McNiel)

Art behind bars

Local artist brings rehabilitation programs of creativity to Pelican Bay

Local artist brings rehabilitation programs of creativity to Pelican Bay

Julie McNiel began her career teaching drawing classes at College of the Redwoods. Today, she has a new set of students she instructs in visual arts, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in California.

McNiel said she learned about local artists teaching inmates at Pelican Bay in 2003 and thought it was an amazing idea. That idea followed her for a decade.

In 2014, she was referred to the William James Association by her colleague from the College of the Redwoods’ art department. She was offered an artist’s contract to teach at Pelican Bay.

“I look at the prison in a completely different way now,” McNiel said.

McNiel is now the leading artist for the Arts in Corrections program. As lead artist, she acts as the liaison between the artists, the prison, and the William James Association, making sure there is communication between them.

“Creativity is everywhere, especially in prison,” McNiel said. “This program allows opportunity for those on the inside.”

The William James Association started the Arts in Corrections program in 1977 in with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations and the California Arts Council. The program is now in all 35 California prisons.

According to their website, their philosophy behind creating the art program is “based (on) the belief that participation in the artistic process significantly affects a person’s self-esteem and general outlook on the world.”

L to R: Jose Mendoza, instuctor Julie McNiel, Marquis Louden; Ho
Visual arts teacher Julie McNiel and two of her students show off their art at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. | Photo by Peter Merts (Courtesy of Julie McNiel)

“Going through art classes, they’re more likely to attend other programs like GED and enroll in college,” McNiel said.

McNiel said the program lost all its funding because of the 2008 budget crisis. A pilot program was proposed in 2014 and has been expanding ever since.

McNiel said when the art program started, there were only three artists teaching one workshop. McNiel said there are now art classes every day of the week.

Including McNiel, there are five contracted artists: Janessa Johnsrude and Zuzka Sabata with Dell’Arte International, Cecelia Holland who teaches creative writing, and Dale Morgan who teaches guitar.

“There has been an overwhelming experience of people saying these programs are very much needed,” McNiel said,

The co-founder of the Dell’Arte Prison Project, Janessa Johnsrude, leads a physical theater ensemble at Pelican Bay. She said they teach awareness to body, availability to change and adaptation, and responsiveness in present moment.

Johnsrude said the prison environment isn’t conducive to be open with emotions, thoughts and feelings, but bringing in theater gives an outlet for performing.

“If you give them a chance to grow they will,” Johnsrude said.

Johnsrude teaches five different classes twice a week. In the two and half years she has been at Pelican Bay, she said she has seen significant changes in her students, and by participating, they are investing in something positive.

“The data available for those participating in arts programs shows it reduces recidivism,” Johnsrude said.

Johnsrude said the students come to escape the humdrum of incarceration, and by doing that, they discover something unexpected in the theater program. In her classes, students work on writing components, monologues, actor training, course work in play and theatrical form in ensemble.

“The main goal is offer a space for people in Pelican Bay to express themselves,” Johnsrude said.

Dell’Arte Prison Project’s other co-founder, Zuzka Sabata, said the Arts in Corrections program became the ideal model after choosing a selection of professionals and creating a positive impact. She said the participation helps people cope with being incarcerated and leads to having less behavior problems while in the system.

“The arts program has become the model exemplified across the country,” Sabata said.

Sabata said the challenges of the program is facilitating support within the prison for rehabilitation. It isn’t a clear system with new programs to help the staff organize themselves. Sometimes staff may be willing to facilitate, but their superiors may not be.

She also said there are negative responses from the community that reflect the ignorance of the positive impact the program brings due to social prejudices. Sabata said too many people have the idea that a mistake makes someone permanently a bad person, and that isn’t the case.

“If we don’t acknowledge the stigmas attached to incarcerated individuals it is more challenging to shift from incarceration to a free person,” Sabata said.

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