Saturday mornings for women in the Blaine Street medium security jail in Santa Cruz is a time to self-reflect through art projects, such as writing letters to their future selves in an attempt to encourage rehabilitation.
“You’re going to get addicted to drugs,” one letter said. “You’re going to fall in love with this guy that’s not good for you,” another said. Some women wrote, “You need to remember how smart and beautiful you are.”
This exercise was part of the Artistic Rehabilitative Therapeutic (ART) Initiative, a year-old program encouraging empowerment and rehabilitation for inmates who feel they have been forgotten. The ART Initiative was founded last year when UC Santa Cruz fourth-year Sophie Hill assessed the needs of the inmates at the Blaine, Rountree and main facilities in Santa Cruz County. Students in the program operate art classes multiple times a week for inmates, including painting, writing and other activities.
Hill dedicated a significant amount of time coordinating the program and setting up classes three times a day, one at each Santa Cruz facility. She works to motivate inmates to express their creativity, helping them break up their daily routine in jail.
The ART Initiative hosts 12 of the 28 inmates currently in custody at the Blaine Street facility. They also host two sessions a week at the Santa Cruz main jail, where they work with 20 of the 91 female inmates.
“I asked the inmates what programs they went to, what they enjoyed and what they might want to see. A lot of the women asked for art programs,” Hill said.
She applied for a grant with the Student Volunteer Center, found a faculty sponsor at UCSC, organized a student workforce of six facilitators and then worked with the Inmate Programs coordinator M’Liss Keesling to implement the program at several facilities.
“Every class they do, women look forward to it. It’s a full classroom every time,” Keesling said.
The ART Initiative encourages the inmates to freely express their creativity and exposes them to different coping mechanisms that can help with developing a positive self-image. At the end of every class session, inmates are given the opportunity to share what they’ve created, which creates a safe space for self-reflection.
A former inmate found that the ART Initiative led her to find her own “motivation, hope and peace of mind.”
“After class some of my classmates and I would go back to our unit and talk further about the ideas and emotions brought up in class that day,” the former inmate said.
A project within the initiative was facilitated by psychology major Zula Ganzorig, who had inmates choose superheroes they thought best represent their characteristics to help them reflect on their life choices.
“We did an example about superheroes and supervillains,” Ganzorig said. “We asked what would your power be if you were one? What would your weakness be if you were a villain? When we ask things like that, we’re working with self-reflection. We’re asking them about their strengths and weaknesses.”
The program combines the needs of the inmates with a learning opportunity for students, providing a unique chance for students interested in working in rehabilitative programs with inmates as a career choice.
“With some internships you might not be collaborative or have control over the program — you’re just a tool for that program. But with this program, you’re allowed to be collaborative,” Hill said.
Helping inmates reflect and grow through art within Santa Cruz County facilities isn’t the only goal of the ART Initiative. They’ve set their sights on a continuation of the program that would help inmates who are transitioning back into society.
Betsy Aceves, who helps facilitate one of the sessions on Saturdays, received another grant from the Student Volunteer Center to run a re-entry program providing a community for inmates after their release.
“We want them to continue a healthy lifestyle. We want them to be a part of this outside program and give them a healthy activity or somewhere to go. Some of these women don’t have a place to go and they say they’re glad to be in prison,” Aceves said.
Ganzorig said working in the program gave her even more motivation in wanting to help inmates who she feels are “forgotten.”
“It’s a large part of society that’s forgotten about. They’re often marginalized and demonized,” Ganzorig said. “When you go [to the class], these stereotypes about jail are gone because [you realize] they are just human beings.”
More information on the program and samples of artwork created by the inmates can be found at theartinitiative.org.