Investing in Creativity: Serving Alaska’s Incarcerated Artists

This winter the Alaska State Council on the Arts delivered professional artist business development training to artists incarcerated in the Juneau, Alaska Lemon Creek Correctional Center (LCCC). The four-day intensive training program marked the first time since our establishment in 1967 that we provided this service. The site-specific program, which served twenty-two participants, many of whom are serving long-term sentences, was developed and staffed in partnership with the Sealaska Heritage Institute and the LCCC Educational team. The program also served as a pilot to test its potential for delivery in additional incarceration facilities across the state.

A National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant which, “supports creative placemaking projects that help to transform communities into lively, beautiful, and resilient places with the arts at their core” underwrote the program. The term “creative placemaking” refers to a process – and encapsulates ASCA’s commitment to cross-sector collaboration – where, “artists, arts organizations, and community development practitioners deliberately integrate arts and culture into community revitalization work – placing arts at the table with land-use, transportation, economic development, education, housing, infrastructure, and public safety strategies which…supports local efforts to enhance the quality of life and opportunity for existing residents, increase creative activity, and create a distinct sense of place”

Lemon Creek Correctional Center artists showing off their carved Alaska Native masks.

Two years ago ASCA completed a rigorous statewide strategic planning process where we clarified our mission and outlined specific goals and objectives for our agency as we strive toward the year 2020. The design and delivery of the LCCC incarcerated artist program targeted and accomplished three of our agency’s desired outcomes.

A dragon, drawn by Lemon Creek Correctional Center inmate Darin Jones

First, we have started to, “develop strong communities by utilizing the arts to address social challenges and celebrate success.” Creativity is a learned behavior. As is destructiveness. The goal of our curriculum is to nurture the development of creativity and professional artist business skills for incarcerated artists. These tools may offer an antidote against internally and externally directed destructiveness and resulting recidivism after their release. One participant wrote in his evaluation, “When is the next class? Let me know, please. Thanks for everything you spoke about. You have been a great help and you really presented with confidence and compassion.” All of the participants asked for more resources, more training and set short and long-term creative and business goals. ASCA staff is scheduled to work on accomplishing these goals with the same group of artist inmates this coming August.

Second we, “provided valuable resources and expertise to State of Alaska Departments and employees.” We were able to provide Paul McCarthy, Alaska Department of Corrections, Lemon Creek Correctional Center Education Coordinator and Assistant Superintendent, Daryl Webster with training resources, workbooks and a network of contacts to support their educational and business development efforts on behalf of incarcerated artists. We were able to share that our program teaches how the creative sector is grounded in professional business standards and ethical practices, legal contracts, and licensing. In kind, we learned a vast amount about Alaska’s correctional system and facilities requirements that will help us better tailor our pilot program and modify our curriculum to match their needs and meet their mission. We also discovered that a prisoner philanthropy program is already in practice at LCCC. Sealaska Inc. provides wood materials for free to incarcerated artists who make one piece to donate to nonprofit fundraisers and a second piece for themselves to sell. The program enables incarcerated artists to earn funds toward restitution and child support and act as meaningful contributors to their families and communities.

ASCA is exploring other prison philanthropy

Alaska Native mask being created by Lemon Creek artist.

models like Philanthropy Roundtable to learn how we might support these already existing efforts in Alaska’s correctional system. We are researching how we may support Alaska’s Community Foundations to serve as a liaison between incarcerated artists and the public. Incarcerated artists could contribute to a legacy endowment, managed by a community foundation, that funds community-directed health and wellness programs that support and protect individuals and families, including children of incarcerated parents, impacted by crime.

Third, “we invested in networks of artists, organizations, and agencies in their work to serve all communities and people of Alaska.” ASCA and SHI staff hosted a cross-sector dialogue to learn more about the respective services and programs we offer and how we can collaborate to maximize our collective impact. We learned about the comprehensive programs offered by multiple agency staff including; Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Second Chance Reentry Program, Gastineau Human Services Halfway House, Sealaska Corporation Haa Aani Economic Development Spruce Root Community Development Finance Institute, Local Arts Agency Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, the Haa Shagoon Art Shop, Sealaska Heritage Institute Art Programs and Retail Gift Shop and professional artist workshop guest presenters Don Morgan, Gene Chilton, and Sue Follett. Through these conversations, we have connected to even more resources across the state designed to address the needs of inmates reentering their communities like the South Central Foundation’s Family Wellness Warriors program, the Men’s Wellness Initiative, the Anchorage Reentry

The piece by Zachary Pierwola, an inmate at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, references 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints

Coalition and the work of the Alaska Native Justice Center.

A professional peer recently challenged the value of this work by asking, “Why are you supporting incarcerated artists when the needs of Alaska artists, who haven’t done anything wrong, still aren’t fully supported?”

Our response about the value of this work is this. The time, training and relationship building embedded in this program are an investment in all Alaska individuals, families, and communities. This protective and proactive work nurtures individual’s creativity and arts business skills. Incarcerated individuals who are provided these resources are; less vulnerable to criminal recidivism after their release, able to access more expanded employment and earning opportunities to support themselves and their families, better able to maintain financial stability through earned income from their creative work, and empowered to express themselves constructively – rather than destructively – which helps to better maintain sobriety and mental and behavioral health and wellness. This work is about investment rather than expense – a pay it forward model – designed to support all Alaska artists, our families, communities and our state’s invaluable creative sector.

Article by the Alaska State Council on the Arts, April 14 newsletter, reprinted with permission. Photos from Juneauempire.com

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