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Will prison arts programs make a comeback in California?

On a breezy summer day at San Quentin State Prison, inmate Paul Stauffer reads his writing to a live audience.

“My shoulders brush the sides of the wall and bunk as I pace the nine feet of my cell, between the sink and door. A scream echoed silently from my tortured soul, as hopeless dreams of a once meaningful life, floated endlessly across my mind…” he reads.

Creative self expression is a proven force for change in prisons. Inmates in this creative writing class, and classes like it, are less likely to commit crimes when they’re released.

California’s Arts-in-Corrections program offered prisoners everything from art classes to music and drama in the 1980s and 1990s. But the state drastically cut the program, then stopped funding it entirely in 2010.

Now, only about a third of all state prisons have some form of arts programming left, mostly through private or volunteer support. San Quentin is one of them.

Every Wednesday evening, around 20 students finish up chow and trickle into the fine arts classroom next door. They sign in and set chairs into a circle. The room looks like a regular art studio, almost. The walls are filled with half-finished paintings, and band equipment is covered and tucked away. But the students wear prison-issued blue uniforms and coiled barbed wire is clearly visible from the windows.

Zoe Mullery has taught the creative writing class at San Quentin for 15 years. She loves how writing, and fiction in particular, allows her students to tap into experiences they haven’t been able to explore.

“People who have painful stories,” she says. “People who have complicated, perhaps shameful stories.”

Mullery starts off her classes by picking up from the week before.

“We’re going to hear the end of Eric’s piece,” she tells the class. “We missed the ending, ran out of time last week.”

The class can accommodate up to three readers per night. Mullery says there’s a range of styles, including science fiction, children’s stories and memoirs.

Student Eric Curtis starts gingerly.

“Alright… OK, so, we’ll try this again,” he prefaces. “This will be part two.”

Curtis rolls right into his piece.

“You wouldn’t believe what happened next. It was dark. Not just dark, but beyond dark…” he reads.

The rest of the class falls silent; focused on Eric Curtis’ words. Some stare down at the floor, others have their eyes closed. He tells his story for about 20 minutes.

Most of Mullery’s students are lifers. But she doesn’t know the exact crimes they’ve committed -- it’s prison etiquette not to ask. Their writing tells her who they really are.

“The majority of people who come to my class are people that I feel are really working on being a person of integrity,” she says. “A person who could live a life in the world that's giving and not taking.”

James Metters has been in prison for 16 years on a third-strike conviction.

“I received a sentence of 35 years to life for second-degree unarmed robbery,” he says.

Metters says his drug addiction led him to steal. But his last sentence was heavy enough to wake him up.

“I know if I’m ever going to get out, I’m going to have to have good behavior,” he says. “I’m going to have to change. So for me, I made the decision to change.”

Metters was transferred to San Quentin two years ago and joined the creative writing class as soon as he got here. He says it’s helped him get a leash on his temper.

“Instead of lashing back with anger or not listening when somebody gives you constructive criticism,” says Metters. “Not listening to people when they’re trying to tell you something right. When they’re pointing out some of your flaws that can actually make you a better person.”

Studies have shown the benefits of arts programming on prisoner rehabilitation -- fewer disciplinary actions behind bars and a lower recidivism rate overall.

One study, for instance, found that two years after release, nearly 70 percent of Arts-in-Corrections inmates were still out of prison, a 40 percent improvement over the general prison population.

Mullery says being able to see characters in a story, how they relate to, and impact each other, actually teaches empathy.

“Because if people who've committed crimes need to understand anything,” she says, “It's how they've affected other people. That's what's lacking in a criminal act -- you're not considering how that's affecting someone else. And I feel like that's exactly what happens when you learn to be a good writer. You have to consider how each character experiences that story.”

But in times of tight budgets, providing creative outlets for inmates has proven to be a cuttable item. In 2003, the state cut more than $160 million from prisons, including more than $3 million for arts programming. In 2010, legislators killed the arts program altogether.

Now that the state has a budget surplus, advocates may have their way. Some legislators are working to restore a limited number of prison arts programs in the state’s new budget.

Jerry Elster says that would be very good news for people behind bars. He got out of San Quentin six years ago and now works as an organizer for All of Us or None, a prisoner advocacy group in San Francisco.

“I went in for second-degree murder out of LA county,” he says. “It was gang related and I took the life of one of my gang rivals during a gang altercation.”

Elster says it took him almost 10 years in prison to start wanting something better for himself. He began by pursuing spiritual teachings, and eventually connected with Zoe Mullery’s creative writing class.  

“Once you get the creative juices flowing, it's almost impossible to stop them,” says Elster.

Elster says he could have sped up his rehabilitation if he’d joined the class sooner. The same goes for the friends he left behind.

“How many guys in prison actually believe they can rap,” he asks. “How many believe they have something to say? You're looking at high 90-something percentile. If they had room to go through a creative writing class, man, I'll teach you how to do your rap. Not just learn your rap, express yourself. Be open to express yourself in any way you feel you can do it in a positive way. I know they'd be into it.”

Legislators say the final arts rehab budget will shake out this summer, which means, even if they do, the programs might not get reinstated until next year.

Audio for this story will be available after 5pm. 

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