Arts-in-Corrections: California's Creative Response to a Broken Prison System

In the early years of his incarceration, Guillermo Willie acknowledged, art was the farthest thing from his mind. “My thoughts were 'OK, I'm going to get some heroin. I'm going to get some speed. I'm going to get some drugs,'” recalled the Los Osos man, who spent 38 years in prison for assault and his role in the death of a fellow inmate before his release in 2008. “My intent was to be a bum, a criminal. I had no thoughts of making it out of there.”

But as he delved deeper into drawing and painting, his attitude began to shift.

“There was a length of time where I was reflecting, going inside myself, [thinking] 'What am I doing with my life?'” he recalled. “I wanted to be an artist and I knew what I was doing was a limitation on me being able to paint. I knew I needed to make a change.”

Today, Willie, a visual artist and actor, is one of the numerous success stories of the Arts-in-Corrections program, a partnership between the California Arts Council and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, that aims to combat recidivism, nurture rehabilitation and foster safe conditions in state prisons, county jails and juvenile detention centers. By introducing inmates to everything from dance to drumming to drama, the program's supporters believe, Arts-in-Corrections can inspire deep and lasting change.

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Chris Alexakisart, C.A., justice