Arts + Culture

Class on arts in prison a hit with students and inmates

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Tom Skelly and inmate arts crew

Tom Skelly with inmates who created a mural to memorialize a corrections officer at Chino prison in 2006.

UCLA arts lecturer Tom Skelly spent 30 years in the state prison in Chino, and he’s never regretted it for a minute.

Skelly worked at the California Institution for Men as an arts facilitator — he created and ran an art-making program for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in an effort to help turn the lives of inmates around.

“I loved it. I would do it again,” he said. “It had so much substance, meaning and goodwill to it for everybody involved — and not just for the inmates.”

His iron-clad belief in the transformative power of art and the mission of this since-discontinued program to change lives has motivated him to develop a class entitled, “Arts Programs in Correctional Institutions: History, Theory and Practice.” Taught annually at UCLA for the last three years as part of the Visual and Performing Arts Education Program (VAPAE) in the School of the Arts and Architecture, the unusual course gives students an overview of how art-making can change people’s thinking and behavior.

Skelly’s course, said Barbara Drucker, director of VAPAE and professor of art, “opens students’ eyes to the realities of prison life and the positive impact participation in the arts can make.” The course introduces students in the arts, she explained, “to a diverse range of populations and non-traditional sites where they can make an important contribution and impact by teaching the arts. The VAPAE Program is very fortunate to be able to include this important subject in its annual course schedule.”  

Among Skelly’s guest speakers has been a former inmate who learned art in prison during the 20 years he was in maximum security on a murder conviction. He was later exonerated and released when he proved his innocence, Skelly said.

“People sometimes forget that there are a lot of people in prison who are there because they are non-violent substance abusers, first-time offenders or just victims of circumstance,” he said. “Sure, they are being punished, locked up and isolated from society. But unless there’s some kind of positive outlet for them, they will never change. Everything for them remains the same. It’s the programs that inspire them.”

Skelly has managed to also inspire students taking his class with his insights and stories from behind prison walls. “I learned SO much from this class,” wrote one student in a course evaluation this year. “The material is so eye-opening, and the guest speakers he brought in were phenomenal … I loved that I never had to try to be engaged; everything Tom said was so super engaging.”

Art from behind bars goes public

 
 
Skelly

In addition to teaching art in the state prison and helping jumpstart similar programs at other correctional institutions, Skelly recruited volunteers from among the inmates to create community murals, sculptures, mosaics and other public artworks. Those pieces adorn city halls, libraries, schools and local police departments all over California, including in Los Angeles. All of the artwork was created in prison, Skelly explained. Murals, for example, were painted in prison by the inmates on pieces of plywood and then reassembled by public work crews on site.

In being able to create art for the public, inmates got “the sense that they were giving back to their community on their own terms,” he said. “These were, for the most part, inmates who were ready to make a change in their lives.”

While some critics accuse Skelly and his inmate artists of taking jobs away from professional artists, he explained, “The fact is that if we didn’t do them, the art wouldn’t get done. These local municipalities couldn’t afford to pay an artist $15,000 to $20,000 to do them. So we did them for free – they only had to cover the cost of the materials. They got a huge bang for their buck.”

And while Skelly can’t say for sure how many of these beautification projects still exist elsewhere, there has been a concerted effort to preserve inmate art and the history of the Arts in Corrections program by the UCLA Library.

Stored away in the Southern Regional Library Facility on campus are 168 boxes containing photographs of the inmates’ artwork, some shown with the artists; administrative, financial and instructional records; and other materials that document the 30-year history of Arts in Corrections. The program was managed by a partnership between the William James Association and Artsreach. Artsreach was founded in 1979 as a community outreach program of UCLA Extension.

By the 1990s, Arts in Corrections had grown into the largest institutionally based arts program in the country, with fully operational studios run by arts professionals and other staff in every state correctional and rehabilitation institution in California, according to archive records in University Archives, a part of UCLA Special Collections. The program’s palette was diverse and multidisciplinary. Professional artists provided instruction in painting, drawing, sculpture, murals, photography, poetry, creative writing, theater and music.

Now in more robust fiscal health, the state has decided to bring back prison arts programs with an infusion of $1 million this year and another $1.5 million next year.  

Skelly said he never envisioned himself working in a prison when he graduated with an M.F.A. from Claremont. “I thought I would be showing my work in galleries or teaching at a university,” he recalled. But a professor on his graduate committee recommended him to a state corrections administrator who wanted to recruit a professional artist to teach at Chino.

“I thought, well, I could try it for a couple of years,” Skelly said. “But I certainly didn’t think it would turn into a full career.”

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