News: Artists Behind Bars

Freeing prisoners to create and grow

Natalie Hager

Artists participating in the Inside/Outside Prison Project include (L-R) Jefferson James, Bet Stewart and C. Pic Michel.

No divas allowed: It's an improbable guideline for a group of female artists, but it's essential when coordinating a six-week, multi-disciplinary art program that teaches drama, movement, visual art and writing to 20 prison inmates.

The Inside/Outside Prison Project (ISOS) recently completed its fifth year of working with "residents" of the River City Correctional Center and is in the midst of preparing for the next session. ISOS says its program is structured so that artists and inmates "embark on a journey of self-discovery, finding their own voice and mapping their own course ... so that from this time on the arts can be a refuge and a beacon for a healthy future."

"It's a self-esteem building experience," says Bet Stewart, artistic director of Intuition Theater. "For a woman to challenge herself in three art forms — to write something that gets published, perform something that gets applauded, make something. When she's finished, she feels listened to and respected. That's important."

Art gives meaning
River City houses people convicted of nonviolent felonies, many receiving treatment for addiction.

Jefferson James, a dancer and choreographer who founded Contemporary Dance Theater, is a founding member of ISOS. The commitment of the artists benefits the residents in an unconventional way, she says.

"One of the things that the numerous women or men have said is that the team did everything they said they were going to do," James says. "For many of these residents (that) was a first. They have been lied to and misled and disappointed. It was a very positive experience for them.

"My art form is dance, and sometimes it's considered frivolous, just entertainment, but this brought home to me the power of what art can do for artists but also for the people participating."

The program, originally designed for women, has been conducted several times in the men's "pod" at their request. But the artists agree that their hearts are truly with the women. The changes they're facing are more complicated than "Just say no," and for these artists it means serving as a role model.

"(The) artist presentation is where we present ourselves not just as teacher/facilitators but as artists," says C. Pic Michel, a visual artist. "That's our opportunity to present our art form but also speak to how, in our lives, our art form has provided meaning, the opportunity for reflection, personal growth, spiritual growth. What we are offering is ourselves as examples, as artists, as women who have been able to accomplish our life goals through the use of our art form."

Being able to make a living as an artist is a goal many of these women struggle to achieve. That's one reason the bulk of the $20,000 budget per program goes toward artists' fees.

"The whole project was initially funded by the Fine Arts Fund, which is definitely interested in seeing artists are acknowledged, treated fairly, respected," James says. "At some point the artists need to be paid to be able to stay in the field, to be paid for their experience and their training for the value that they bring."

There are many artists who would like to participate but can't afford to clear their schedules for the six to 10 hours a week. In addition to preparing for and conducting the two two-hour sessions with the residents on-site, the artists meet after each session to plan their next visit, problem-solve and discuss their experiences.

This commitment to mutual support is essential to ensuring that each artist has the time she needs to complete her project.

"ISOS is not an organization, it's a collaboration," Michel says. "ISOS is an agreement about what we're doing and how we're doing it."

Stewart elaborates.

"We wanted it to be set up so that there would be somebody in charge all the time but that we also shared the leadership," she says. "Early on we invented what we call the Grapefruit Model. That was because we were having breakfast one morning, and we realized that there's all these different sections representing different art forms and then in the middle is the people who actually do the administrative."

The organizational model illustrates some of the programming, according to James.

"It allows artists from different art forms to work with their peers in a different discipline and to learn their strengths and their challenges of their team members," she says. "They are supporting each other in the way they are hoping the residents will support each other."

'Giving inspiration'
What begins with a room full of strangers and mistrust culminates in a dramatic performance that incorporates the writing, individually crafted masks and movement activities from the course.

"They're very excited about the performance," says Paulette Hansel, poet and leader of the writing activities. "For many of these women, it's the first things that they've done straight and sober that they feel good about. Many of them tell us it's the first time they finished something that they began and they recognize that as being a key learning, a key achievement."

Michel agrees.

"In six weeks they demonstrate all these great skills in order to bring this to the performance," she says. "It's about life skill development, personal development."

That accomplishment is personified in the completed work of the course, and that is what James wants to public to see.

"There is a performance component, and it gives a goal to the participants," James says. "But it's also to invite the outside world into the prison to see what these women or men have created and how they have worked with the artist to work through their problems, to see how valuable the artists are in this situation for giving inspiration, giving hope, providing skills."

James says she wanted to bring this program to Cincinnati because "we tend to demonize people that make mistakes." After witnessing positive results again and again, these artists would like to see the program expanded and established as a permanent part of the rehabilitation process.

"Anyone (who) has $200,000 or $300,000 they don't know what to do with, please call Jefferson James," Stewart says. "Donate it to the cause and create what would effectively be an ongoing program to be proud of in Cincinnati."

For more information about the Inside/Outside Prison Project, visit or or write Jefferson James at [email protected].

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