A participant in ACTA's Arts-in-Corrections son jarocho workshops at Corcoran State Prison.  Photo: Eric Coleman 

Traditional Arts Work in the Prisons

By Amy Kitchener, Executive Director

Last year, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts was one of seven recipients of a new contract offered by the California Arts Council in partnership with the California Department of Corrections to offer arts engagement programs in the prisons.  We challenged ourselves to design and implement a program led by traditional artists because we knew from experience that creating a sense of "belonging" through cultural expressions rooted in community traditions was not only possible, but necessary--even for a marginalized arts audience like California inmates.

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WATCH :: ACTA's Arts-In-Corrections Program

We invited documentary filmmakers Sara Aguilar and Eric Coleman to shoot on location at Corcoran State Prison in the final weeks ACTA's first residency.  Here are the stories that emerged.

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Participants in ACTA's Arts-in-Corrections son jarocho workshops with their teachers Cesar Castro (far right) and Quetzal Flores (middle back).  Photo: Eric Coleman

Music in a Cold Space: Son Jarocho at Corcoran State Prison

By Cesar Castro

Soon enough we began to hear music in this cold space.  I am even convinced that the sonority attracted flies and smiles; but most importantly, I am sure that it changed our surrounding and the students' interior.  They expressed it: they felt well, they felt calm; they were liberated from negative thoughts and from their current realities.  A cascade of comments and thoughts were shared between exercises, sones, and songs and with each of them we learned more.  This kind of music is a way of coming together through dialogue and that is when we noticed that this was our real weekly work.

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Participants in ACTA's Arts-in-Corrections son jarocho workshops.  Photo: Sara Aguilar and Eric Coleman 

Where There is Hope: Son Jarocho and Collective Songwriting at Corcoran State Prison

By Quetzal Flores, ACTA Program Manager

Embedded in traditional arts practices are processes that lead us to community.  In this way, traditional arts are not only outlets but vehicles that can afford the students spiritual, intellectual, and emotional mobility in an otherwise immobile environment.  Each day I left the prison needing to make sense of my time spent with these men. Why was it so easy to connect?  Each session seemingly created new connections.  Each connection gave path to new possibilities.  Each possibility, hope.  Where there is hope, there is a sense of belonging.

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Participants in ACTA's Arts-in-Corrections storytelling workshops with their teacher Michael McCarty (second from left).
Photo: Eric Coleman

At Least One Story: Storytelling at Corcoran State Prison

By Michael McCarty

What I found wonderfully amazing was the peace and contentment that shone in the men's faces as they shared their stories.  WP vented his frustration at still being defined for actions he'd done over twenty years ago, his rage overpowering his telling.  But once he'd found his story, his delivery was calm and reflective.  Now he had a story that could be heard.

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A participant holding "Nowhere Girl," the piece he created as part of ACTA's Arts-in-Corrections drawing workshops.  Photo: Eric Coleman

A Shared Art Space: Dry-Drawing at Corcoran State Prison

By Omar Ramirez

I am told the first day we are inside by a Commanding Corrections Officer in the gym that the inmates are there to set up chairs and tables.  It is their job to do it.  I felt that it was my class and that I should set it up myself, and if the students wanted to help then I would accept their help.  So my first interaction with the inmates was to work with them to set up the chairs and tables.  My first lesson as an Arts in Correction instructor was that everyone's life counts the same.  I would try to teach from this position every Monday, to take into consideration those incarcerated and those servicing the incarcerated.

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We'd like to acknowledge and thank Nayamin Martinez, our Arts-in-Corrections project manager and special editor of this issue of The New Moon, and Patricia Wakida for guest editorial support.