Leadership Without Ego - Part 1: The Workshop Was Neutral Territory

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the first in a six-part series of posts featuring an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system.

Sarah: Tell me about your work.

Steve: Currently I oversee all the volunteer programs at San Quentin Prison. My office is in charge of reviewing background checks on volunteers. I also manage the program schedule, coordinate with inmate groups’ schedules, review proposals for new programs, and recommend proposals to the warden for approval. Inmates can pitch proposals, but most pitches come from outside groups.

Now, thanks to the passage of Prop 57 last fall, the Department of Corrections gives rehabilitation achievement credits. Prisoners who participate in volunteer programs that pass approval by Corrections are eligible to get time off their sentences. That’s added a whole level of data entry to track attendance and calculate time spent in those programs. I’m the final reviewer, so each time an inmate earns enough hours to have a week off, I’m the final button.

I’m also responsible for big events, such as performances by outside groups, or events organized by inmates like the Breast Cancer Walk or the annual Day of Peace.

 Inmates and supporters on the 2017 Breast Cancer Walk at San Quentin.

Inmates and supporters on the 2017 Breast Cancer Walk at San Quentin.

Breast Cancer Day 1.JPG
 Steve with Associate Warden Steve Allbritton at the Breast Cancer Walk.

Steve with Associate Warden Steve Allbritton at the Breast Cancer Walk.

Sarah: What does that entail?

Steve: A group submits a proposal, which at San Quentin is called a narrative. For example, the narrative submitted by an inmate group called "San Quentin Cares" said something like, We all have mothers, relatives, and friends with breast cancer and we want to support the cause by doing a walkathon; inmates can contribute money to participate, and people on the outside can contribute via a designated link on the official Breast Cancer Walk website. Or another example of a narrative is the one inmates submitted for the Day of Peace. That one said something like, We want to have a day on the yard that encourages everyone to get along across gang affiliations, religious faiths, and so forth; we want outside people to perform music; we want a treat provided for every inmate.

 2018 Day of Peace banner painted by participants in the Arts in Corrections program

2018 Day of Peace banner painted by participants in the Arts in Corrections program

 Day of Peace committee members and set-up crew.

Day of Peace committee members and set-up crew.

 
 Chalk drawing competition.

Chalk drawing competition.

 Day of Peace performance by members of Bread and Roses. Guitarist Kurt Huget teaches guitar playing at San Quentin.

Day of Peace performance by members of Bread and Roses. Guitarist Kurt Huget teaches guitar playing at San Quentin.

I review the narrative to make sure it’s realistic based on any number of factors, for example when the prison opens and closes. It all has to jibe. I clean it up and then it goes up several levels of the administrative hierarchy till it reaches the warden. I work in a system that’s paramilitary.

Sarah: Does the prison system consciously emulate the military?

Steve: Yes. The correctional officer, who’s in there with the inmates, is like a soldier. Next comes the sergeant, who oversees a team of correctional officers in a given location in the prison. The lieutenant oversees a whole cellblock, and the captain manages several cellblocks. Above the captains are the associate warden, the chief deputy warden, and the warden.

 Steve at his MFA solo show in 1986.

Steve at his MFA solo show in 1986.

Sarah: How long have you been in this current position?

Steve: Five years.

Sarah: How long have you worked in the prison system?

Steve: This is my twenty-eighth year.

Sarah: How did you get into this work?

Steve: After getting my MFA in fine woodworking in 1986, I got a yearlong teaching position in a community college in Ridgecrest, in the desert, off Highway 395. The college serves military personnel and their families from the nearby army base. When my contract was about to run out, the local Kern County arts council contacted me about setting up an arts program in a nearby prison. Prison arts programs were on the rise, thanks to the visionary work of Eloise Smith, the first executive director of the California Arts Council, which was started during Jerry Brown’s first governorship. She responded to requests from inmates to set up an arts program and then she helped it expand throughout the state. It became a full-fledged program called Arts in Corrections, funded by the California Department of Corrections.

 Steve's MFA solo show.

Steve's MFA solo show.

When I was first approached to work for Arts in Corrections, I said no. My view at that time was that inmates were in prison because they had done terrible things, and they belonged in there. I wanted to stay on the college-teaching track. But like so many MFA grads, I had a whole file of rejection letters. So when I got another call from the council, I went to the interview—and was hired a week later.

That first prison job was at Tehachapi, not far from Bakersfield. I was given a room in the prison. I started teaching drawing, and I brought in other artists to teach other media.

Sarah: What was it like to segue from teaching college students to teaching inmates?

Steve: I found that the inmates were much more dedicated and interesting to work with than the college students I’d been teaching. In prison, you’re working with people who have bottomed out. They latch onto art as avenue of expression and a way to have a different, more positive identity—the Artist.

Eloise had felt from the beginning that inmates would be more receptive to learning from high-level artists than from art therapists who come in with the agenda of getting the inmates to talk about their feelings. A lot of inmates resist the touchy-feely approach—“Oh, I was terrible, I robbed this bank.” The Department of Corrections didn’t want outside artists coming in—they didn’t think artists would be able to handle all the security procedures. But Eloise said it would work. She argued that if inmates were taught art by gifted artists, their engagement with the artistic process would lead them to investigate their own character and be able to contribute better to the community. That’s what finally sold it with the department. And as soon as I started working at Tehachapi, I saw the wisdom of Eloise’s approach.

Sarah: Can you give me an example of the positive impact of this approach on inmates?

Steve: I had a ceramics instructor teaching a group of guys how to throw on the pottery wheel. This inmate, a very awkward, nerdy guy, tall and lanky with thick, scraggly hair, would stand in front during the instructor’s demonstrations, blocking the other inmates’ view. He couldn’t grasp the technique and he was getting really frustrated. The instructor said, “Sit down, breathe, feel your body. We’re each going to make a bowl. Now you’re going to follow exactly what I do. Pull up the clay as slowly as an ant crawling up the side of the bowl.” And so on. Well that day that inmate finally was able to make a hollow form. It was thick and ugly, but it was a hollow form. And the next week, he showed up with a haircut and stood in back of the group so everyone could see. Later I followed up by reinforcing what he was already figuring out—“Yeah, you have to be aware of how you’re impacting the people around you.”

 Inmate throwing a pot.

Inmate throwing a pot.

Not that that always happens. But experiences like that hooked me. I felt like I could really help make a difference. Guys would be worried if I didn’t show up. They’d say, “If something happens to you, we’ll never have this class again.” “You can’t just take a week off—we need this class.” I’d never had that experience at the college. There, the students were taking five classes, participating in various clubs—they were spread so thin. But inmates are in a monastic situation. In a cell, there’s time to reflect and think about what they’re going to make. If they get this opportunity to make art, they can focus on it. If they’re into writing, then they’re writing all the time. The guys in the Shakespeare class are walking around the yard practicing their lines in British accents.

Sarah: Were you welcomed by the prison staff?

Steve: Hardly! At the time I was hired at Tehachapi, the mission for corrections was only to keep inmates housed safely. There was no mission to teach them, beyond helping them get a high school diploma. My first day on the job, the warden called me in and said, “I didn’t want this program. Keep your house in order. If I see anything out of line, you’re out of here.” They thought a teacher who was already working in the prison would have been a better bet security-wise. But just a week later, my direct supervisor told me, “I didn’t want to hire you. But I’ve been watching you—you’re all right.” He told me, “That lady [Eloise Smith] wouldn’t stop pushing her agenda for us to hire an artist for this job. She waited us out.”

Bit by bit, the prison staff came around. The warden and officers would walk by the art workshop and see rival gang members communicating, black and white guys sitting next to each other. The workshop was neutral territory.

Sarah: When I first met you, you were working at Deuel Vocational Institute (DVI), a medium-security prison in Tracy.

Steve: That was my second prison job. I left Tehachapi and went to DVI in 1989. I wanted to get closer to San Francisco and Northern California. Tehachapi in an arid and politically conservative region. I prefer Northern California’s landscape and culture.

Next installment: The Kids Melted Under That Praise