Maintaining Humanity: An Interview with Grady Hillman About Arts-in-Corrections
By Steven Durland
Grady Hillman is a poet and writer who first became involved with "arts-in-corrections" when he did a creative-writing residency in the Texas prison system in 1981. Since then he has worked in more than 50 correctional facilities in Florida, California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas, Peru and Ireland, and has become a nationally recognized correctional arts programmer. In 1991, he co-founded the Southwest Correctional Arts Network (SCAN).
Steven Durland: Times are tough. How do you justify arts-in-prisons programs?
Grady Hillman: There's always that argument: "Why should we support these programs? This is taxpayer money and we could be spending that money on other programs. These guys in prison need to be punished."
But California, Oklahoma and Massachusetts have come up with documentation that shows that when you bring an arts program into an adult correctional setting, it reduces the incident rate—everything from stealing steaks from the commons area to stabbing other inmates—by 60% to 90%. You can document this readily because there's a high degree of surveillance and observation. Those programs were able to really document the radical rate of personal transformation within the institution.
California quantified that on a cost basis and found that arts programs in prisons not only paid for themselves, but also provided significant savings for the institutions at the same time. There was one study of four arts programs in the state that were funded to the tune of $125,000. Some independent professors from UC Santa Barbara were able to quantify the incident rate reduction and found that the institution actually saved $225,000 through the effects of the programs.
So, you go in saying that [an arts program] makes your correctional facility more manageable; it reduces the rate of violence inside the institution and it cuts down on guard overtime hours. It cuts down on work time and cuts down on many different aspects of prison administration. It is actually saving you, the taxpayer, a lot of money.
I can say this having worked in the area for 14 years. I've now worked in 50 adult and juvenile correctional facilities, in half a dozen states and three countries, and there's nothing that works better than the arts for that kind of in-house transformation.
The third area of accountability is in recidivism rates. California did a seven-year recidivist rate study and found a dramatic drop in the recidivist rate of these inmates [who had participated in arts programs] after they left prison, compared to the general prison population. These people did not commit crimes when they got back into the free world. Something really profound had happened to them in the prison setting that transformed their behavior. So you can also make the argument that you're reducing crime on the outside by bringing these programs in.
When a guy comes up to me and says, "Why should I be paying for music lessons for some convict when I can't afford it for my own kids," I say, “It just makes the world a little safer for your kids”. Yes, your kids should have art lessons. Everyone should have art lessons. But these programs pay for themselves and they represent a significant benefit to the community at large. These people come back out. Ninety-five percent of the people who go into prison come back out. And how do you want them to come back out? Do you want them to be bitter and angry and hostile? Or do you want something in place that maintains their humanity and keeps the human side alive? This is the most compelling argument.
SD: Yet, more and more of what we're hearing in public and political debates is, "Stop coddling prisoners. Take away their TVs and their rec rooms." Is it getting harder to sell these programs?
GH: Yes and no. I think it's getting more difficult to sell adult programs. There is that attitude that you want people to do hard time. I think it's a lot easier to place programs for juvenile offenders, because there's a compelling economic argument there, too. Once you send someone to prison, you're going to spend $20-40,000 per year just maintaining that person behind bars.
There's this old joke that we could send [a convict] to Harvard, buy a car and get them a nice apartment and it would be cheaper than sending them to prison. And that's the truth.
Right now there's this struggle going on for the hearts and minds of the public. In Texas, there's this multibillion-dollar bond proposal for new prison construction and, suddenly, people are realizing that this will cut down their ability to finance education, highways and public utilities. Those areas are beginning to suffer because you're spending so much of your state budget on prison construction. Texas is going to have the largest prison system in the world in a year or so. We're talking about something like 150-160,000 inmates behind bars. We're spending $20-30,000 a year to keep them in there [and] it's not for TVs and rec rooms, it's on highly sophisticated security systems and guards.
Getting construction projects out of legislators has become a pastime in most states. And what's the easiest construction project you could possibly get? That would be a prison construction project. Because they're away from the public eye, and it's basically concrete and steel. They're highly lucrative projects. So there's a huge economic incentive in the construction industry for more prison construction. So you're establishing a huge industry: the prison industry.
I think the public is saying we need to stop doing this. If you turn one kid around with an arts program—maybe getting him involved for six months, he pulls his life together, gets his high-school diploma and goes on and doesn't wind up in prison—then you might have saved the public a quarter-million or a half-million dollars over the life of that kid.
SD: It sounds like what you've got is more than an argument for art in prisons, but for art in the schools.
GH: Yes. Definitely. When we were working in the Harris County juvenile probation department, I was working with these artists and they were reporting back to me. They kept saying, "These programs are great. The kids are eating it up. But why didn't they get it in school? Why didn't they have this opportunity before?" If they'd had this opportunity then, they probably wouldn't have wound up in this setting. They just found school to be boring and not challenging and not interesting; tedious and with nothing that allowed for any kind of expressive medium. They had very powerful forces working in their lives and they needed something to turn to that would give them a way to get a handle on their lives.
In the correctional facility, they start getting a handle on their lives through the arts. They have to face up to who they are and where they've been and who the people are in their lives—the tragedies and the stories. And suddenly they transcend. They get on top of it. Had that happened in the schools, many of them wouldn't have turned that way.
The unfortunate thing is that you're seeing schools in budget processes that cut the arts. The first thing that gets cut in a high-school budget is the band. [But] those are the programs they need to retain students. There are just a lot of contradictions inherent in the educational system, in the American attitude toward education and what the arts can do to integrate all of those things together to make a healthier community. The blatant truth is that art needs to be in the school curriculum. Some sort of cultural tie-in has to be there for all youth. Otherwise, they're just going to become alienated and they're going to turn on society. That just seems so obvious. And yet you don't see school boards and probation departments making that connection.
SD: What are the benefits for the artists doing this kind of work?
GH: All of the artists I've talked to who go into this kind of setting say they've learned as much or more than the folks they work with. Certainly when you're conducting a creative writing workshop in a maximum-security prison, you're gaining insight into cultural settings and milieus and conflicts and tragedies and images that you just don't have access to on the outside. Our lives, our experiences, provide our material. And by sitting with a bunch of writers and listening to their stories, you learn a lot.
The other thing that's real interesting is that prison culture is a distinct culture. It's a little bit like visiting a foreign country and living there for a while. Time has an entirely different meaning in prison. Trust [and] intimacy, the constructions of identity, were highly sophisticated. You learn about both the potential and the tragedy of the human condition. And that's the stuff of art.
The one thing I got out of my prison experience is the power of poetry. Working in the free world—writing poems, going the artist path, publishing in magazines, talking to other artists—was about craft more than anything else. And then I started working with inmates, for whom the creation of a poem was the most important thing in their life—to get it right. They taught me the power of language and the power of poetry. So I came out of the prison experience a much stronger writer, a much more careful writer. They gave me that. They showed me how powerful a thing I'd latched onto, that I was working with something that was dangerous and explosive and intense and wonderful and magical. And that was good for me. They showed me how powerful poetry could be.
SD: There are activists who spend a great deal of time exposing the abuses of the criminal justice and corrections systems in this country. Do you ever find yourself feeling like your arts-in-corrections activities make you complicit with a bad system?
GH: No. Generally when artists go into a correctional facility they don't work for the correctional facility; they're under a contract, usually with some arts agency. It's not like you give hell legitimacy. It's there. It's hell. You didn't create it. You're not complicit. You're going inside. You're sharing with inmates what it is you do.
You don't see a lot of solidarity in prisons. It's such an uncomfortable setting that most people just want to do their time and get out. Some live lives there and become players—politicians or con artists—or they just become institutionalized. But most people want to get out with as much of themselves as they still have. They tend not to trust. So the artist who tries to get something started—who says, "You need to stand up for your rights, you need to do this, you need to do that"—gets expelled. Not by the guards, he gets expelled by the inmates.
They realize that this person is not going to be able to help them. What they want that person there for is to teach them how to paint or how to write poems and, maybe, to serve as a bridge to the outside world in some manner; to give them some shred of dignity or humanity in a really negative setting; to create an oasis. [A place] not to get riled up and be challenged by oppression, but a place to relax.
The guys who came to my workshops…for a little while they weren't convicts anymore. They were just people. They'd always joke about who was going to get the beer and pizza next time. And that was what they wanted. They wanted that sort of pub-gathering feel, where we could sit around and share stories and be human beings with one another. "We're not going to overthrow the system. We're doing time. We love you because you come here and for a little while we're not convicts anymore because you respect us. You talk to us like human beings instead of animals. And you let us talk to each other, and teach us how to talk to one another so that we don't dehumanize one another." That's what the artist does. It's a matter of personal integrity—not a matter of political integrity.
SD: What kind of artist does this work? What are the necessary skills? It's not the sort thing you take a class on in school, and I'd guess that not everyone is cut out for this kind of work.
GH: You're right. Art therapists have their role to play in society and art teachers have their role to play. But the model that I promote, the model that I think is the best, is the professional artist and the artist-mentor relationship: The master artist. When I look for an artist to come into a correctional setting, I generally look for someone who's good and has proved themselves in the free world. As visual artists, they've had exhibitions; as a writer they've published books. You're providing somebody to this population who, by their own standards, is real. They see you as a model. What they want from you is to show them what you do. They want somebody who will give them feedback on what they do. They want a professional standard. They want to know how good they are. And they want to know what they need to do to get better.
People in prison write. They write a lot. People are working on screenplays, novels, all sorts of different projects. They're pretty accomplished. They need somebody who can give them a professional eye.
The second thing in a prison program is that you want someone who is open to the inmates; who doesn't think they're Neanderthals and doesn't come in afraid that they're going to say something wrong and get stabbed. Or, on the other hand, they come in and say, "These people are all victims. I'm going to nurture them and take care of them." A paternalistic attitude that people are babies—they don't like that either.
What you want is somebody who can go into a prison setting and look at them as human beings. They've made some tragic mistakes. A lot of artists want to know what they did. I don't. I never want to know what kind of crimes they committed. I don't want to be put in a position of my own moral values judging them. That's not my role. They've been judged, they've been convicted. I'm just there to share and give them my perception and feedback and criticism so they can make adjustments in their work, so their work can develop and they can become better writers.
I tend to stay away from art therapists and art teachers, because they come in with a curriculum. I don't like people to come in with a curriculum. I like people to come in with technique and experience with art. That's what works the best.
This interview originally appeared in High Performance magazine, Spring 1996.
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