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Art for Incarcerated Kids Transforms Young Lives

"This program works," said one program coordinator. "I've seen kids turn their lives around.”

Published on Friday, August 2, 2019 | 5:00 am
Camp Glenn Rockey’s “hope” mural. The facility is a Los Angeles County juvenile probation camp. Photo courtesy of Armory Center for the Arts

[Updated] Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts may be known for its art instruction and bringing creativity into local schools, but the Center also plays an important role for young people in juvenile hall and in detention camps throughout California.

The Armory is a member of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, comprised of 13 other arts groups that bring their artistic specialties into youth camps and juvenile halls, featuring instruction by professionals in the craft.

The groups in the network represent dance, poetry, writing, music, and fine art.

“The Armory is a co-founder of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network. We’ve been doing this work for over a decade,” said Leslie Ito, executive director of the Armory Center for the Arts. “We go into the camps and we work with the students over a 10-week period. And in many cases we’re helping them to create a mural inside the camps.”

“It serves as both introducing the arts and nurturing that creativity in the youth, giving them a sense of purpose and something positive to focus on,” she said. “Also it leaves a positive beautifying effect on the camps as well. It’s been heavily embraced by the probation office. It’s been a really great program for the youth.”

Incarcerated youth huddle before the “Hope” mural at Camp Glenn Rockey, a Los Angeles County juvenile probation camp. Photo courtesy of Armory Center for the Arts

In 2015, the groups Street Poets, Unusual Suspects, WriteGirl, The Armory, Rhythm Arts Alliance and InsideOut Writers came together as AIYN and piloted the first-ever multidisciplinary arts program for incarcerated youth in LA County.

Through the 5-week pilot, arts were provided Monday-Friday at six detention camps, with a demonstration of learning and student performance each Saturday. With AIYN’s coordination of members’ offerings, arts education was provided to more than 240 students via varied curriculum.

Rotating modules allowed students to experience multiple disciplines including performing arts, writing, visual arts, and music. The work now extends beyond the 22 probation-run facilities served throughout LA County to also include support for successful youth reentry.

Ito and former Armory Executive Director Scott Ward are on the board of AIYN. Ward was executive director of the Armory when the AIYN was formed. He said the network was formed because as a network together, the individual arts organizations had more clout.

“The Armory on its own has always worked with at-risk youth,” said Ward, who remains actively involved with AIYN. “With the other organizations that were going into the youth camps, we formed a group that became a gathering. Once a month we would discuss our successes and challenges and that carried on. It became clear that the more we worked together the stronger we became, and so the organizations formed a network.

“One of the challenges in LA County is when you’re on your own like we had been, you’re a drop in the sea of a bigger body. We found that if we formed a group we could be seen in a different light. It changed the way the County looked at us. Previously they had seen us as do-gooders that they tolerated. But when we formed the network and a 501c3 it allowed us to work in partnership with the County, not in tolerance of the County.”

The Arts and the Impact on Incarcerated Youth

The Armory is a key — and is in fact a founding — member of AIYN,” said Kaile Shilling, executive director of AIYN. “They bring a passion for visual arts and a deep willingness to engage with the young people where they are. The visual arts project in detention facilities are one of our most visible projects.

“Not only do the murals help us engage a large number of young people, they also create different levels of artistic engagement, so young artists can contribute no matter their skill level,” she said. “When the young people create murals on the walls of the facilities, they not only learn artistic expression, they learn cooperation, teamwork, and the pride of seeing their work actually change their physical environment.

“For many, they comment on the unexpected impact seeing their ideas and effort on the walls of the buildings, creating a more positive energy, and knowing that they have left a lasting, positive mark as a transformative experience.”

Another arts partner in the program, Jail Guitar Doors, which was founded by legendary Detroit rocker Wayne Kramer of the MC5, provides the music aspect for the network.

“This program works,” said Jason Heath, program coordinator and lead teaching artist with Jail Guitar Doors. “I’ve seen kids turn their lives around who were incarcerated and now they’re working for organizations like ours. What we’re all trying to do is give these kids a different idea of what they are able to accomplish, and let them know that they have talent.”

“The Armory is one of the founding members of the AIYN,” he said. “The program is broken into 10 and 16 week semesters. Each group will go into Central Juvenile Hall and they’ll do 12-16 weeks they’ll cycle out go into another camp. And someone will come in. Then as we’re cycling out, either Street Poets, or Rhythm Arts Alliance or Actor’s Gang or another member of the network will come in.”

The Armory offers a range of art instruction, some is offered in the parks and some instruction is at the Armory. Ward said there have been times when he unfortunately runs into the same kids in juvenile hall who he had taught in a different Armory program.

“They are the same kids at times,” he said. “I’ve had kids come up to me at juvenile hall and tell me, ‘I remember you from the park.’ We need to remember these are children, and we need to treat them like children, not as beings who are better off being punished.”

The predecessor to AIYN was Violence Prevention Coalition, of which Shilling was executive director. Elida Ledesma, program director, has been with AIYN since the beginning.

“The founding members were trained with probation officers in the field,” said Ledesma. “And that’s when the network really started to take off. Then we evolved into AIY Network and created the 501c3 in 2018.”

Shilling said it’s the practical teaching experience that rings true for both the kids and the teachers.

“Armory teaching artists work directly with young people in detention facilities, teaching them not only concrete visual art skills, but the more intangible skills of cooperation, compromise, positive self-expression, seeing a project through, and tapping into their creativity,” she said.

“This kind of creative mentorship is especially important,” she said. “As we know greater engagement with arts is associated with a host of positive outcomes, and all young people need access to arts and creative expression. While the murals tend to get all the attention, they also do sculpture, print-making, collage, and a host of other visual arts skills.

Said Ledesma: “One thing I’ll add is that the Armory brings in professional artists to these spaces, which serve as role models/mentors to the youth and as examples of a viable career option in the arts. One of the Kilpatrick youth said this about participating in the The Armory’s program, “It was an amazing classroom. I hope to still be able to get more.”

Giving Kids a Chance

“All we’re trying to do ultimately, is give these kids a different idea about what they can do,” Ward said. “A lot of times the gang tells them they’re good at various acts but now we help them find something they’re good at that has a positive effect, something that isn’t going to take them to jail or get them killed.”

“All of the kids who are in this context are traumatized,” he said. “They may have made poor choices but they have all had traumatized lives, whether familial issues or substance issues or influence in the neighborhood, whatever it may be, so if we can change their outlook when they come back in the neighborhood it’s important.

Ward said that there are three main components to the program.

First, there is the diversion from getting locked up, he said.

“We want to keep kids away from lock up situation and keep them away from a criminal record,” he said.

“If they do end up incarcerated, we want to make the most of that time so that’s another part,” he said. “And when they return to their communities, that re entry process is very important. Those three pillars help us in the way we deal with kids and make them successful adults.”

But the most important thing to the Armory and the network is to provide some confidence-boosting skills.

“Making these kids more able to rejoin their families is important to all of us,” Ward said. “Getting them back into a productive mode is in the interest of all of us. I’m proud that the Armory is continuing to do this work following my departure.”

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