Amid budget cuts and institutional neglect, San Quentin’s arts education volunteers keep working

SF Public Press
 — Jun 22 2010 - 11:35am

On a cool Friday night in March, near the corner of Haight and Steiner streets in San Francisco, the hip boutique Tweekin Records hosted an unusual gallery opening of paintings, sketches, poetry and elaborate collages. It was created by inmates at San Quentin State Prison.

Organized by Kate Deciccio, an artist and a mental health and substance abuse counselor in San Francisco, the exhibit featured her own work, along with work by Eddie Sanchez and “Absent” Helean from San Quentin, and by inmates in the John Howard Pavilion at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. — Deciccio’s former employers.

Deciccio came to the Bay Area three years ago to explore mental health in correctional institutions. Today, she volunteers one morning a week in San Quentin, where she runs an art program with roughly half a dozen inmates. “There’s only two criteria to be in my class,” she said, “a pre-existing interest in art-making and a history of mental health symptoms.”

It’s estimated that one in six California inmates suffer from mental health problems, but the topic is largely stigmatized on the inside.

“Mental health is not something that they’re sitting around the table rubbing elbows chatting about in the chow hall,” Deciccio said. “When and if they want to, or need to, discuss the psychiatric part of their experience, the door’s open.”

During graduate school, Deciccio researched community-immersed alternatives for working with patients with mental health symptoms in Washington, D.C. She ran arts programs in the John Howard Pavilion, a forensics unit for criminally insane inmates.

Inspired by the Arts in Corrections program of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — a once-thriving service that brought volunteer artists into teaching positions in all 33 California prisons — Deciccio approached the artist facilitator in San Quentin and pitched her idea for an art class tailored specifically to those grappling with acute mental illness. The class began with an outside grant, but the funding dried up, and she has since been entering the prison as a volunteer.

Arts in Corrections emerged in the late 1970s amid new interest in prison arts programs. San Quentin Prison was the program’s showcase, bringing in theater workshops from the Marin Shakespeare Co., yoga and meditation from the Insight Prison Project, and the William James Association’s Prison Arts Project, established in 1977 at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, which sends about a dozen artists into San Quentin each week, teaching drawing, painting, creative writing, guitar and printmaking.

CUTS IN 2003

The beginning of the end came in 2003.

First, the state’s budget turmoil led to deep cuts in Art in Corrections, including the elimination of artist facilitators in several institutions. San Quentin was an exception until early this year, when the facility’s artist facilitator position was finally cut.

Laurie Moore, director of the William James Association since 1989, said the most severe cuts to arts programs in San Quentin have come since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tacked the “rehabilitation” moniker to the Department of Corrections in 2005.

“Arts in Corrections is, in essence, dead,” she said. Today her program operates without official support, even though her teachers reach as many as 300 students directly and hundreds more through performances and art shows inside prison walls.

The cuts come at a time when California’s “streamlined rehabilitation model” saw $250 million slashed from programs, including drug abuse treatment, vocational programs and education. Close to 1,000 rehabilitation employees were laid off across the state, the majority of them in education.

Chris Brady, San Quentin teacher until the recent layoffs, said the state’s numbers are misleading, because some teachers elected to retire rather than take pink slips or demotions. All told, 184 educators, including Brady, were demoted to records analysts in prisons while others were reassigned as librarians or administrative support. Brady currently works in the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, reviewing inmate case files.

In San Quentin, more than 30 positions were cut, leaving only eight teachers remaining for an institution with nearly 5,000 inmates. Those remaining, Brady said, are mainly relegated to administering tests.

By state law, all inmates in California must take the Test of Adult Basic Education and are then assigned to work, vocational or education programs according to their score.

“It comes down to values; what we think is important and where we are going to put money,” Deciccio said.

Currently much of the Corrections-run education is “worthless,” Deciccio said, and while some teachers are committed to helping their students, that’s not always the case.

“There’s nothing about the messages in that space that say to a person, ‘you’re capable to learn, you’re capable to become a thinking (person) that’s successful and constructive and can offer something useful to your world when you leave,’” she said.

The result is that Corrections relies increasingly on volunteer programs like Deciccio’s, the William James Association and others.

Diane Ketelle, a professor of education administration at Mills College in Oakland, began working in San Quentin as a tutor in the prison’s Richard E. Burton Adult School, teaching literacy, English as a Second Language, and GED prep courses.

After the layoffs in March effectively ended the program, Ketelle volunteered to teach an autobiographical writing class for inmates.

Though San Quentin is home to Death Row, the vast majority of the prison’s inmates will be released to re-enter society. Ketelle and Deciccio work with those in the minimum-security H Unit, a place of large, overcrowded dormitories and prisoners serving relatively short terms.

“Most of my guys are dealing with major anxiety, a lot of them have paranoia and depression,” she said. “It’s an unsettling space for anyone, but it’s a really unsettling space for someone who’s experiencing mental health symptoms.”

Part of the design of Deciccio’s class is to build relationships with her students based on trust, empathy and a shared interest in art. This, she said, is better for stabilizing mental health symptoms than punitive measures or antipsychotic medications.

Most of her students have been paroled, yet Deciccio fears the men won’t find the support they need on the outside to cope with their symptoms.

Current law prohibits prison volunteers from keeping in contact with their students once the students have left the institution, which Deciccio bitterly criticizes.

She said volunteers are “facilitating and fostering inmates to be engaged in productive, positive activity. It’s absolutely crazy to castrate any positive contact that could actually plug a person into community life.”


Deciccio’s dream is to create a collaborative space where parolee artists can live and work in a co-op environment with community artists – one with individual apartments and shared studio space.

Many of the San Quentin volunteers harbor similar goals. Ketelle said she has been searching for a forum to publish her students’ autobiographies, and Moore, the director of the William James Association, wants to organize a San Quentin blues festival.

Meanwhile, Deciccio organizes art shows, like the one in San Francisco’s Lower Haight nightlife district; she wants her students to have clear artistic goals when they’re released, something to keep them motivated to produce positive work.

Also, getting her students’ art into a public forum allows people on the outside to see that inmates are not always the pariahs they’re made out to be.

“You have an object that’s evidence of an inmate working really thoughtfully over a period of time,” she said. “So when a viewer … experiences that artwork, it allows them to consider more the soul and meaning of a person who's sitting inside the prison."

A version of this article was published in the summer 2010 pilot edition of the San Francisco Public Press newspaper. Read select stories online, or buy a copy.