Skip navigation

California Prisoners Embracing Arts

by Kevin W. Bliss

In November 2022, about 20 prisoners at California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino staged a dance show.

You read that right.

Smashing what New York Times reporter Brian Selbert called “prison culture codes of masculine behavior,” the men said no one was more surprised than they were at where they ended up.

“Nobody dances in prison,” Kenneth W. Webb recalled saying back in 2018, when the idea was suggested by a fellow prisoner at California State Prison (CSP) at Lancaster, Dimitri Gales.

Webb, then 27, was early in a 50-year sentence for fatally shooting another 18-year-old at a party in 2008. Gales, a year younger, was serving 18-years-to-life for involuntary manslaughter for
his role in a gang shooting.

“It sounded super crazy,” Gales agreed. But he and Webb drafted a proposal for prison officials that emphasized the rehabilitative benefits of dance.

Receiving approval, they taught the class themselves, working out dance and hip-hop routines for about 20 fellow prisoners. They were also taking Words Uncaged classes with the program’s founder, Cal State-L.A. English professor Bidhan Chandra Roy. He introduced them to Dimitri Chamblas, the recently recruited dean of the School of Dance at California Institute for the Arts. Chamblas eventually agreed to work with the prisoners to stage a show, scheduled for April 2020.

The work borrowed choreography from the prisoner’s daily lives – “freezing on the floor when an alarm sounds, the periodic roll call,” Selbert recalled.

Then COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench in the plans. During the pandemic, the group dispersed, some to other prisons, like Webb, whose good behavior was rewarded with a transfer to the lower-security CIM. Others were released, like Gales, whose parole began in April 2022.

When Webb got Chamblas to resume classes at CIM, the show was finally staged in the prison gym. Among the 40 invited guests: Dimitri Gales, who called it “a full circle moment.”

Another program at CSP-Corcoran culminates in a prisoner art exhibition with a unique purpose: to raise awareness of the prevalence behind bars of depression, mental illness and suicide. The exhibit incorporated community chalk art drawn on the outer walls of Facility 3B. Prisoners drew angels and other positive imagery to remember those who took their own lives. They shared personal stories about those lost, sharing not only grief but also hope.

“For me, this event carried a personal message,” stated prisoner Jessie Milo. “I know five people who have taken their own lives in prison. And a few months ago, one of my favorite cousins lost her son to suicide. My heart breaks for her.”

He drew an angel to honor those lost lives. The state Department of Corrections and Community Rehabilitation (CDCR) counted 31 prisoner suicides in 2021, among scores more who made attempts or harbored suicidal thoughts.

The Prison Journalism Project also allows prisoners to give voice to their tribulations. It trains prisoners to write professionally and assists them in publishing their works. Prisoners can become journalists or novelists, write memoirs or poetry. Even those with life sentences find it beneficial to commit their thoughts to writing. As one prisoner chalked on the wall at CSP, “Live your life for the release date you want, not the release date you have.”

A 2021 report by California Arts in Corrections credited prison arts programs for fostering personal growth, healing from trauma and facilitating successful reintegration into society. Participants improved coping skills, reduced anxiety and anger, cultivated a sense of community and said the programs smoothed their re-entry after release.

Brant Choate, CDCR’s director of rehabilitative programs, said prison arts programs serve as “neutral zones” for safe interactions between those typically separated by race or gang affiliation. By providing an outlet for creative expression and personal development, these initiatives instill a sense of purpose and self-worth, he said, empowering participants to break the cycle of crime.

Sources: New York Times, Prison Journalism Project