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Project PAINT Creates New Sense Of Self For Donovan State Prison Inmates

Photo by Promise Yee

Inmates in Donovan state prison take turns drawing each other, Sept. 2015.

A group of inmates at Donovan state prison is taking arts classes designed to encourage creativity, connection and sharing. The goal of Project PAINT is to cut down on violence in prison and reduce recidivism.

A group of students at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility is taking arts classes designed to create an environment where inmates can connect and share.

On a recent Tuesday, about 20 inmates in light blue uniforms moved folding chairs and tables into place for the night's art lesson in the Donovan state prison gym.

The class was on figurative drawing. Inmates start by practicing to draw faces, then sit face to face to draw portraits of each other.

Inmate James Fox has been coming to Project PAINT classes since sessions began two and half years ago.

“I try to keep myself growing,” Fox said. “This is the single best part of my life here. It's just comfortable, it's relaxed. I get to express myself.”

Project PAINT founder, Laura Pecenco, said she recalls one class assignment in which she asked students to draw a metaphorical self portrait. She said at first Fox refused to participate.

“(He) Threw down his pencil and said, 'I don't do this, this is introspection, this is not my thing at all,' and was very frustrated that evening,” she said.

But, Pecenco said Fox changed his mind.

“And he actually came in a few weeks later and, I think the quote was, 'I can't stop thinking about this project,'” Pecenco said.

Fox's finished drawing was featured in the prison art exhibit at Oceanside Museum of Art this summer.

Photo by Promise Yee

A cell shared by two inmates in the D block of Donovan State Prison, Sept. 2015.

Robert Brown, Donovan community resources manager, oversees rehabilitation programs for the prison's 3,100 inmates.

“Prison is a very negative environment,” Brown said. “And having programs like Laura's, is real positive, because it brings some hope into the institution. It gives the inmates a chance to focus on something positive, rather than on stuff that's negative, whether it's negative stuff towards staff or negative stuff towards each other.”

Brown said national studies show arts programs, like Project PAINT, have helped reduce violence in prisons. The classes become an incentive for good behavior. Brown calls it offering the carrot instead of the stick.

“Trying to prepare these inmates to reenter society is our job,” Brown said. “And hopefully through arts programs, give them a different prospective on themselves. And maybe some introspection on why they came here and hopefully they can fix those potential issues when they are released.”

Photo by Promise Yee

Project PAINT instructors (left to right) Kathleen Mitchell and Laura Pecenco discuss drawing techniques with inmates, Sept. 1, 2015.

California Department of Corrections figures show about 60 percent of released inmates are arrested for a new crime within three years. Prison rehabilitation programs are striving to reduce that number.

Pecenco is collecting data on the program's effectiveness for her doctoral study at UC San Diego, and as part of a collaborative state study.

“I think that arts programs really allow people to have what I'm calling an alternative identity,” Pecenco said. “In many of the experiences that these men have had they've been labeled as prisoners. And there are these expectations that come along with that.“

Pecenco said the label “artist” brings in different social expectations.

“And those we tend to see as more positive, exploring aspects of your identity, connecting with family, things that overall tend to lead to reduced recidivism and lower institutional violence,” Pecenco said.

State funding for arts programs, like this one, dried up during the recession due to budget cuts.

But two years ago, grants became available through organizations like the California Arts Council.

Photo by Promise Yee

A common area for inmates in D block at Donovan State Prison, Sept. 2015.

“It's important to support these programs because even if it's only changing a few, those few are less likely to come back, less likely to create more victims when they reenter our society,” Brown said. “Today's inmate is tomorrow's neighbor.”

The arts classes create a sense of community among the inmates. Fox said it's a privileged he works hard to keep.

“I'm a 40-year-old man,” Fox said. “I find myself wanting to do a good job. It's been a long time since I've been proud of anything,” he added. “All these things, it's building me back to being who I am.”

Laura Pecenco said she hopes to keep the arts classes at Donovan going indefinitely.

Promise Yee is a North County freelance writer. Contact her at promise.yee1@gmail.com. Twitter: @promisenews. Facebook: promise.yee.1

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