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Effort emerging to bring arts back to California prisons



Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
State prison inmates Earl Stewart, left, Ricardo Castillo and Jesus Ledesma take part in a painting class on Tuesday, Nov. 19 at Norco's California Rehabilitation Center.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
A cartoon animal mural is sketched out on the walls inside the visiting area at Norco's California Rehabilitation Center.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Tom Skelly has been teaching art in prisons for more than 20 years. Skelly works with inmate Ollie Broussard during class on Tuesday, Nov. 19.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Norco inmate Ricardo Castillo sketches out a sun god on a canvas before painting. Castillo has one tattooed on his left arm. He thinks of it as a symbol of history and culture. Castillo has served two years at Norco and has two more years to go.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
A mural painted by Tom Skelly's former painting students remains in the outdoor visiting area at the California Institute for Men in Chino. Skelly taught art at the prison for 30 years before the program lost state funding and was eliminated in 2010.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Norco inmate Larry Ainsworth paints singer Erikah Badu from a drawing he did in 1999. Ainsworth has kept the drawing since then. Badu reminds him of his wife. "But she can't sing like her," he jokes. Ainsworth has been in prison for 15 years and has four months to go.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Inmate Ollie Broussard, 38, paints a color wheel, one of the class assignments. The color wheel helps students understand color blending and complimentary colors. Broussard said the class has taught him to have patience. Broussard has served time at multiple facilities.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Sports-themed murals fill the walls in the gym at California Institute for Men in Chino. The murals are the only remnants left of Skelly's art classes at the prison. He taught almost 100 inmates at a time, much larger than the small program currently at Norco.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Tom Skelly spent 30 years teaching art to inmates in this classroom at California Institute for Men.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
An inmate takes paint brushes out at the start of class on Tuesday, Nov. 19 at Norco's California state prison. Outside of class, inmates can use drawing tools but they cannot not paint.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Inmate Rudy Sigala paints pandas for his three children. The class is Sigala's first time painting, but he has drawn before.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
This mural was painted on a well in 1983 by Tom Skelly's former students at California Institute for Men in Chino. Skelly says much of the inmates' work is escapist – paintings of where they want to be.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
Inmate Jesus Ledesma concentrates on making a painting. Inmates use acrylic paints, which dry much faster than oils.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jesus Ledesma works on a painting inspired by Day of the Dead sugar skulls. The three-hour painting class takes place once a week in a small trailer classroom. Ledesma is serving a six-year sentence for injuring another man in a fight.
At the end of class on Tuesday, Nov. 19, teacher Tom Skelly gathers inmates' canvases to lock in the classroom's back office for the week, along with paints and paintbrushes.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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About a dozen men sit in a makeshift classroom in Norco. Canvases are draped across their desks, and dabs of paint sit atop sheets of wax paper perched beside them.

The men are hard at work, some painting images they've found in National Geographic while others take inspiration from ideas inside their head. 

RELATED: what it's like to have rare access inside a prison arts class (KPCC's AudioVision blog).

"The whole week, I'm looking for that day" - the day he gets to paint, said Jesus Ledesma, from Riverside, as he painted a brightly-colored skull. Ledesma is in the California Rehabilitation Center, serving a six year sentence for injuring another man in a fight. "I love it. I'm not really good at it, but I know I can learn."

The class, run by Cal Poly Pomona's Prison Education Project,  is one of the few remaining art programs left in California.

A statewide program known as Arts in Corrections that had been providing arts education to prisoners for decades was eliminated in 2010.

But now some state lawmakers and arts advocates are hoping to bring it back. 

State senator Ted Lieu, who represents District 28, which includes Torrance, Manhattan Beach and Marina Del Rey, is among them.

"Unless you're in prison for life, virtually all of arrested prisoners will come out one day," he said. "They will go back to our communities, and the question is do you want them to commit more crimes or do you want them to have a better way to express themselves, manage their emotions, learn new skills and be productive members of society?"

Lieu believes California can afford to work on lowering its 63.7 percent recidivism rate, which he said is the highest in the country.

"Not only do we have a structurally balanced budget with a surplus of over $2 billion," he said, "we also have over $1 billion in reserves and we can take a very small portion of that surplus and reduce our recidivism rate." 

Lieu said he's going to submit a request to the budget sub committee that oversees state prisons to restore $3-5 million in funding for arts in prison programs. That money would cover the first year. He said full restoration would cost around $15 million. 

The California Arts Council and Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang are among the groups supporting the effort. 

Tom Skelly headed arts instruction at the California Institution for Men in Chino from November of 1980 to the program's end in March 2010.

"It was my hope that they would value it enough to want to keep the program," he said.

He said the program produced undeniable results. 

"The officers would tell me that the guys that were involved in my program were more peaceful," he said. "We had the recidivism studies, the incident levels went down on the prisons."

California Department of Corrections data from a frequently cited study in 1980s shows that 74.2 percent of parolees were not returned to custody within a year after participating in Arts in Corrections vs 49.6 percent of state parolees on a whole.

Skelly now teaches the painting class in Norco, a contract position. It's a skeleton of the instruction he once led - the students meet for just a few hours once a week.

Ledesma, one of his students, has three years left on his sentence. Painting is one of several courses he takes to help pass the time.

"It was a stupid fight," he said. "I have to pay for it."