Pass / Fail

So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Effort emerging to bring arts back to California prisons

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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."

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