arts in corrections

Leadership Without Ego - Part 6: Mayberry with an Edge

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the last in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 5, Steve described how arts in the prisons was finally reinstated, addressed critiques of arts in the prisons, and explained how he segued into his current position running all the volunteer programs at San Quentin.

Sarah: You and your family live on the grounds of San Quentin. How did that come about?

Steve: When I applied to transfer from Duel Vocational Institute in Tracy to San Quentin, I told the administrators of San Quentin I needed a house for my family. There are only 85 houses on the grounds, so only a select few get to live here. So when the administrators granted my request, I took it as an acknowledgement of the value of my work.

Sarah: What’s it like to live at San Quentin?

Steve: I think of it as Mayberry with an edge. We live on a quiet, tree-lined street, in a quaint little house that was built in 1920. The gym down the block used to be a schoolhouse. It’s strange because I don’t really engage with most of my neighbors. They think differently about political issues than our family does. But they’re friendly and treat us with respect. We’ve very close to our East Indian neighbors across the street.

I do get to see staff who I work with in a different light because they’re out mowing their lawns. And I’ve been embraced a little more by the correctional staff than I would be if I were just a commuter.

Sarah: Tell me about the “edge” part.

Steve: There’s a gun range not far from our house. You hear the officers practicing. You hear alarms. It’s pretty weird to live prison life 24 hours a day.

Mayberry with an edge.

Mayberry with an edge.

Sarah: Do you ever feel imprisoned?

Steve: Not at the house. But I get called in a lot on weekends, like if there’s problem at the gate with a volunteer’s paperwork.

On the other hand, we live so close to beauty. I can see Mount Tam from my neighbor’s house. And living here has provided great opportunities for my family. Dana has taught at San Francisco State for years and is teaching middle school in Marin now. And my daughter has been able to attend good schools in the area.

Sarah: Do you have any regrets about paths not taken?

Steve: No. Social justice work has changed my understanding of art’s purpose. I learned that art can be a lifeline for someone. When I went through my MFA program, I got caught up in academics and art criticism. Now, I don’t care if someone in an art class can only make a terrible scribble. If they’re making it, I’m excited about it. And if they’re excited about it, I love it.

It hasn’t just changed how I feel about teaching art; it’s also changed my approach to my own art. Before, I’d gotten all stuffy. I thought I needed to have gallery exhibits and be recognized in that way. Now I just want to make things, explore, without the need for it to go anywhere in particular.

I read something about how some Native American tribes pick leaders. The person they choose as a leader isn’t the person who wants to be the leader. I can relate to that. It wasn’t my vision to be running prison art programs or do what I’m doing now. It happened through a series of missteps. But I’ve learned that I do have an ability to work with people. I’ve left a bigger footprint than if I’d had a solo art career and pieces in galleries. I can point to a guy who came from a background of doing harm, and who learned in prison to make classical guitars and still makes them. And they sell for five to 10 thousand bucks each.

Sarah: Describe your art.

Steve: I make fine-art furniture. The pieces are functional and sculptural at the same time. I primarily work in wood but I sometimes inlay stone or other materials. These are one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pieces. It’s different from traditional woodworking, which requires a certain kind of exacting work. This work is exacting too but at the same time it’s more freeform; it evolves as I work on it.

Early in my art career I worked making guitars, and a lot of my pieces are influenced by that—the bending and shaping of the wood; the finishes I use.

Hall Table (black granite and bent laminate plywood)

Hall Table (black granite and bent laminate plywood)

Writing Desk (bent and formed plywood; figured maple veneer)

Writing Desk (bent and formed plywood; figured maple veneer)

Jewelry Box (dyed walnut and maple)

Jewelry Box (dyed walnut and maple)

Sarah: What do you want to do next?

Steve: I haven’t been actively doing my art so I’m not sure how it will evolve. I do want to do pieces about my prison experience. I want to do something related to the huge, rusted iron doors and entranceways at San Quentin. They’re over 160 years old. When I leave the prison, I go through what’s called a sally port, then into a cage, through another door, and finally reach the outside. It’s always a relief to get out of the main perimeter of the prison. Inside, something could happen. Outside, I’m free to walk. I’m always thinking about the parallel between that and art. Art frees your mind. I want to make a doorway. And what would be inside would be an open cabinet, or multiple doors that would open.

Sally port.

Sally port.

Original metal gate.

Original metal gate.

Exit door.

Exit door.

I’d also like to take a printmaking class and work in two dimensions. And I contemplate writing about my experience. But that will have to wait until I’ve gotten some distance from this environment.

Sarah: Where will you live when you no longer live at San Quentin?

Steve: I’ve worked in the prisons for almost 30 years now. At some point I’d like to live closer to nature and have an art studio. I picture having a cup of coffee on the porch and not needing to be anywhere. I’m also looking forward to more family time and more travel.

Sarah: What else would you like to say?

Steve: Once I’m done with this work I’d like to have more interaction with the men I’ve worked with in the past. I’m connected with guys who are doing well, and once I’m not working for the Department of Corrections I’ll be more free to interact with them, do projects with them, and advocate for them. Beyond working with guys I know personally, I want to help support the reentry of inmates into society. I’ve spent all these years focused on helping people inside but there’s a big need for support on the outside. So I’m looking forward to that.

Leadership Without Ego - Part 5: Everyone Everywhere Deserves to Make Art

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the fifth in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 5, Steve described how he kept working to reinstate art programs for prisoners even while he was working as assistant canteen manager at San Quentin.

Sarah: So how did it come about that arts funding was finally reinstated?

Steve: Laurie and I started getting access to politicians—Senator Leno and others. But Leno told us, Look, there’s no one with the political will to support arts in prisons right now—how can I ask for money for prison art programs when we’re cutting Medicare and Medicaid to people who desperately need it? But Laurie hung in there. A couple important developments really helped our cause. For one thing, we got California Lawyers for the Arts on board. Their political clout and connections gave us more access to the legislature. Then when Jerry Brown was reelected governor in 2007, that also created a shift, an opportunity. And keep in mind the economy was improving. Long story short, in 2014, the California Arts in Corrections funding was finally reinstated—at six million dollars a year. The highest it had ever been before that was three million. But keep in mind, six million is still only half of one percent of the Department of Corrections budget.

Sarah: That raises a question that was bound to come up in this conversation: What do you say to people who see you as greasing the wheels of a fundamentally unjust system?

Day of Peace - Chalk drawing competition.png

Steve: Progressives have realized over time that if you keep standing outside the system throwing stones, you may not get as big a change as if you go inside. By going into the prisons, I’m changing culture. Laurie and I, by working hard for a decade, were able to bring back funding for Arts in Corrections. If we hadn’t somehow kept the San Quentin program going, as a demonstration program, with guys who could talk about how much it had helped turn their lives around, I don’t know if that would have happened. Instead, at this point the Department of Corrections and the public at large have made a 180-degree shift in their thinking. Before, the thinking was: Lock away the troublemakers. But now people realize, there’s no room in the prisons for all these people and it’s not good for the economy anyway. That’s what working within the system can do. 

By working inside, I influence the prison staff. I’m able to help them realize that they have an opportunity to change inmates by working with them. And in my position now as the coordinator of all the volunteer programs, I’m even able to work with Laurie to help influence legislators and politicians.

This same dialogue goes on with the public school system. It’s easy to criticize the schools from the outside. But my partner Dana’s a poet who teaches in the school system and she gets so many comments from parents of students she teaches: “My son would never write and now he can’t wait to get to your class and he writes poetry and he’s completely engaged in school.” These things are small but they’re also huge. By working within the system, Dana has helped those parents learn to appreciate the arts. And she’s nudged those kids toward a different approach to academia and even to life. Administrators take note of things like that. That has more impact than if Dana were just to say, “The system sucks and I’m not going to be part of it.” 

Sarah: I’m also curious how you answer the opposite challenge: that prisoners don’t deserve fun, meaningful, rewarding activities like art classes.

Steve: Yes, there are people who say, My kid doesn’t get art at her school but you’re giving these prisoners art classes. My response is: Everyone everywhere deserves to make art. And these guys’ experience with art is helping them develop into better citizens. The classes help them develop communication skills, and to create good art they have to get in touch with their humanity. They come out safer for your community and for themselves. Their recidivism rate is lower. So art in the prisons saves money for you, the taxpayer.

Sarah: I want to loop back and ask about your transition from assistant canteen manager into your current position as director of all of San Quentin’s volunteer programs. That’s a giant leap! How did that happen and when?

Steve: While I was the assistant canteen manager I returned to school to get a high school teaching certification because I knew I needed a more stimulating job. In 2012, right after I completed the coursework, the person in the position I have now, Laura Bowman, decided to move out of state. She approached me and urged me to apply for that job. She then approached the warden and recommended me for it. Because of my years of working with volunteers at San Quentin, I was given the position. So ironically, I wouldn’t have needed to do all that coursework.

Next: Mayberry with an Edge

Leadership Without Ego - Part 4: I'm About Ready to Swear

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the fourth in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. Section 3 ended with Steve explaining that right after receiving a “Heroes of Compassion” Award by the Dalai Lama, he was handed a pink slip.

Sarah: What did you do when you got the pink slip from the Department of Corrections?

Steve: To remain at San Quentin, I took a job as the assistant canteen manager. In my position I was mainly responsible for receiving large shipments of ramen soup packages and cereal and shaving cream. The shipments were offloaded in the warehouse. I received them and broke them into smaller deliveries to be taken to the canteen. I also supervised the canteen workers.

It was quite a step down in salary and stature. I went from running my own arts program to running a forklift. I’d grown up as a laborer in a farming area and I’d worked construction, so in some ways the transition wasn’t that difficult for me. But it was quite a blow to my ego. And the staff resented me because they viewed me as this guy who doesn’t know how to do all these things. Plus they were angry because I’d been given the job over one of their peers who wanted it. But eventually I was able to turn it around and get on good terms with the staff.

Sarah: How did you do that?

Steve: I just acknowledged, Hey, I’m here because I lost my position. I talked to the person who had been hoping to get the job and I said, I didn’t try to take your job. In the end we all got along well. I work hard and I have a fairly cheery demeanor. And the staff are really good at what they do. They have high school educations and I have two masters degrees, but they can run the till and balance the register faster than I can.

But it’s not the most fun work. You’re working at the windows where the inmates line up to buy stuff, and you have to tell some guy he doesn’t have enough money to buy something he wants, and now you have an upset customer who happens to be in for murdering someone. Sure, you have a little window between you and him, but on your work break you’re going to have to walk by this guy.


There’s a funny story from that time. To appreciate it you have to know that I try never to swear. So this inmate was at the window trying to get us to exchange something he had bought. I said, Look, you ran out of money and you know the prison policy—you can’t exchange goods. He kept arguing with me. Finally I said, Goddammit, I already told you, no! Then I said, And now you’ve made me swear! All the other guys in the line started saying, Look, man, come on, you’re making him swear, that’s not cool!

After that, the workers would say, How’s your day going, Steve? And if I was feeling stressed I’d say, I’m about ready to swear. They’d say, Oh boy, Steve’s having a bad day!

During that period of 2010–2012 when I was working in the canteen, I continued working to keep the arts program alive as best I could, including serving as a liaison between the prisoners and the prison staff. Laurie Brooks, who was working for no money, had to step up and take more responsibility for the functioning of the studio. An artist named Carol Newborg was also volunteering to do program management.

Sarah: What kinds of things were you doing as a liaison?

Steve: For example, there would be a conflict over the tool inventory. Not all the tools could be accounted for, which as you can imagine is a big deal in a prison. In situations like these, the studio would go into lockdown. I’d go in and meet with the artists and the inmates and figured out how to remedy it. Then I’d meet with the prison administration and said, Here’s what we’ve done, we’ve fixed it, please allow us to open back up. And they’d say, OK, but moving forward you need to do X or Y.

So I was mostly working in the background but when big things came up like that, I’d step in. That’s still the case now. Something will happen that locks down the art studio and I can negotiate to get it opened up. I try not to misuse my position. But I do mediate when there are conflicts with officers. And not just for the art program, but for all the volunteer programs.

Next: Everyone Everywhere Deserves to Make Art

Leadership Without Ego - Part 3: The Dalai Lama Breaks All the Rules

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the third in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. Section 2 left off with Steve’s description of the difficult period beginning in 2003 when Arts in Corrections was cut by the state government.

Sarah: Wasn’t it during that period that you were honored by the Dalai Lama?

Steve: Yes, that’s right. In 2009, we were still deep in the struggle. Laurie was working for no money, and I was keeping the art program going as a volunteer in addition to my full-time job in the Bridging program that I described earlier. I received a letter informing me I’d been anonymously recommended to receive an “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” award. This is an award granted by the Dalai Lama to 50 people from around the world from Zimbabwe to Thailand to India to Sweden to the US.

When I got that letter, I felt undeserving. The recognition seemed way over the top. I thought, Wait a minute, how can I be put alongside a doctor who does eye surgeries in the mountains of Nepal, or someone who comes up with a way to get money to families in India so they don’t have to sell off their daughters?

But a friend said to me, Just embrace it—someone noticed that you’ve put in 25 years in a place a lot of people are afraid to go into, and they thought that merited recommending you for this. Hearing that really helped me.

The evening before the ceremony, my partner Dana and I were at a dinner hosted by the philanthropist who had funded the whole experience. A Navajo woman who’s a school principal leaned over to me and said, I feel like an imposter. And I realized that a lot of the awardees felt the same way. They were a humble group, many of whom, like me, had stumbled into the work they do.

The day of the awards ceremony, the Dalai Lama’s security staff met with us and gave us all these rules. “You can’t touch him. When it’s your turn to receive your blessing, you’ll walk onstage. He’ll put a white scarf around your neck. He’ll bow. You’ll bow. Then you’ll exit the stage.” But the Dalai Lama breaks all the rules. At the meal before the awards were granted, I was sitting at a table with Dana and my older sister, along with people who’d paid $500 a plate just to be at this event. The Dalai Lama walked in. As he moved through the room, he high-fived Dana, and paused to connect briefly with other people too. It seemed like he could sense who needed a special touch.

The Dalai Lama gives a low five to Steve's partner, poet and teacher Dana Teen Lomax.

The Dalai Lama gives a low five to Steve's partner, poet and teacher Dana Teen Lomax.

He touched us onstage too. As each awardee walked onstage, Peter Coyote read the person’s name aloud, and when we reached the Dalai Lama, he took our hands. I don’t cry easily, but I was moved to tears. There were a number of traditional Buddhists at the event and for them this was a life-transforming moment, the equivalent of a Catholic person receiving a personal blessing from the Pope. They broke rules right and left—gave the Dalai Lama gifts, hugged him. His security guard was freaking out but the Dalai Lama was fine. You can tell he’s just present for what happens. People talk about that all the time and it’s true. He has a special presence, an amazing aura that’s palpable. He would look very somber and serious one moment, and then laugh the next, totally in touch with his emotions.

Steve receives the Dalai Lama's blessing.

Steve receives the Dalai Lama's blessing.

It was inspiring to learn about the projects other awardees were doing. There was an American woman named Lynn Poole who worked with Zimbabwean women who sew dolls and make earrings out of coke bottles to support themselves and their children. These are disabled children who are socially ostracized so they especially need support. Lynn Poole’s husband was teaching at an international school in in Zimbabwe. Another expat drove up to them in a truck and said, My visa has expired and I’ve been ordered to leave the country. This is the project; here’s the truck, loaded with materials for the dolls. It’s all yours if you’ll take it on. Lynn stepped up, on the spot. Not only that—over time she expanded the project so the dolls could be sold internationally through fair trade.

After we heard about all these amazing projects, the Dalai Lama gave a speech and said, Look, we’re recognizing you, but your work’s not done. And the work you’re doing now won’t be widely appreciated till way down the road or even after you’re gone. The work is the reward.

Leaving that ceremony, I looked back over the 20 years of my career. I saw that people I’ve worked with have gotten out of prison and are successful. Even though I don’t work in an exotic place, it’s certainly a place where a lot of people would never be willing to work. My job has allowed me to help and support people that needed it.

But at the same time I realized that that award was tied to circumstances I don’t necessarily have control over. I worked at DVI for 10–15 years, but I wouldn’t have gotten that kind of recognition while I was there. San Quentin has a much higher profile. Also, the purpose of the awards ceremony was to get funders and people in positions of power to recognize this work. So I don’t have delusions about how great I am just because I got this award.

The irony is that I received that recognition by the Dalai Lama in 2009, and in 2010, prison education was eliminated statewide, and I was handed a pink slip. My friends said, Too bad about the Dalai Lama award—it jinxed you!

Section 4: I’m About Ready to Swear

Leadership Without Ego - Part 2: The Kids Melted Under That Praise

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the second in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 1, we left off with Steve explaining that after running the Tehachapi Prison arts program, he transitioned to a position at Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, CA.

Steve: When I went to DVI I got involved with the William James Association.

Steve with DVI arts program alumni Dennis Cookes and Robert Vincent at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Steve with DVI arts program alumni Dennis Cookes and Robert Vincent at a conference on arts in the prisons.


Sarah: Tell me about William James.

Steve: It’s a nonprofit that contracts with the Department of Corrections to place artist teachers in prisons in Northern California. William James screens and places the artists and ensures that they get paid in timely way. I’d let the William James staff know what kinds of artists I needed, and they’d do the matchmaking. I developed a close working relationship with the executive director, Laurie Brooks—which proved important strategically later on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I ran DVI’s art program through most of 90s. The program was already in place when I got there, in a very nice studio space set up by artist Bobby Altman. We offered woodworking (I taught that class), guitar making, ceramics, painting and drawing, and music. The program was hugely successful. We had a core group of inmates who were dedicated artists, and because of that we were able to raise ten grand a year through art sales, and give visibility to the artwork. We contributed all the proceeds to the Child Abuse Prevention Council of San Juaquin Valley.

I still have a close connection with a lot of those guys, many of whom are out now. They’re off parole, citizens with good jobs who are still making art. One big success story is Vincent, who learned to make guitars at DVI. He’s been out 15 or 20 years now, and he makes high-end classical guitars for a living. His son is also an artist and has become a prison arts teacher.

DVI arts program alumnus Robert Vincent with a guitar he made.

DVI arts program alumnus Robert Vincent with a guitar he made.

Around 1998, I was feeling burnt out at DVI and wanted to try something different. I took a position at the Youth Authority in Stockton. I coordinated programs in six juvenile facilities for young people aged 14–26. I found that work a lot more heart wrenching than working with adults. At that young age, you really can’t argue that these kids are locked up through any fault of their own. The staff were more encouraging than at the adult prisons but the environment was still draconian. Officers, barbed wire fences. And kids are harder to deal with in those environments. Fistfights would erupt.

Wards and painting instructor working on a mural at Youth Authority.

Wards and painting instructor working on a mural at Youth Authority.

The worst moment for me was one time in a paper marbling workshop. One kid was trying to become a big shot in one of the gangs. I saw him order two other kids to clean up his area. I said, No, everyone cleans up his own area. He started to walk away from me. I grabbed his shoulder. He whipped around and said, Don’t ever touch me again—you don’t know what might happen. He was the kind of kid who could have played that up, because there’s a rule against touching the kids. The art teacher called in officers and they dealt with him. At that moment I realized, OK, I don’t have the patience that’s required to work in this environment.

Working with juveniles wasn’t the only aspect of that job I didn’t click with. I’d gone from managing my own program to managing programs in six different places. There are always problems that crop up when you’re bringing people inside—for example, the artist doesn’t have the proper paperwork or messes up a protocol. Previously, when I was running my own program, I had credibility among the staff, so I knew who to call to resolve an issue. But in this situation a lot of my work was by phone. So I couldn’t be as effective.

Wards making books.

Wards making books.

Sarah: Were there any heartening moments there?

Steve, book artist Beth Thielen, and wards in bookbinding workshop.

Steve, book artist Beth Thielen, and wards in bookbinding workshop.

Definitely. I remember a bookbinding workshop where the instructor had the kids making these very complicated books. They were really into it. We had photos posted of them holding their completed books—they were so proud. Others would see the pictures and say, Hey, that looks really cool! The kids melted under that praise. They were so starved for positive attention and feedback.

We had a unit for kids with mental dysfunction. I wanted to place this older woman artist in there as a grandmother figure. At first the administration resisted because they thought the kids would act out. But eventually we were able to get her in there. This one kid was especially dysfunctional—he’d refuse to bathe, spread feces all over his cell. We got him into this class. The staff would tell him, You really need to watch it this week because she’s coming on Saturday and you want to get out to go to your class! He totally improved his behavior.

Steve and Beth admiring a ward's work on a book project as another ward looks on.

Steve and Beth admiring a ward's work on a book project as another ward looks on.

Wards proudly displaying elaborate handmade journals.

Wards proudly displaying elaborate handmade journals.

The Youth Authority staff started realizing that instead of this program being an impediment, it could really help them. They started picking out the kids with the worst problems to send to art class. And other juvenile facilities started requesting art programs.

Youth Authority artist teachers with Laurie Brooks (third from left).

Youth Authority artist teachers with Laurie Brooks (third from left).

But even though I saw lots of positive things happen there, I still wanted to go back to working with adults. And my family wanted to move closer to the hub of the Bay Area. So in 2003, I took a job running the arts program at San Quentin. The person who’d been running that program had moved into an education position at the prison.

That program was very successful as well. But right when I got there, the Department of Corrections eliminated their contracts with William James and another nonprofit that provided the same service for Southern California prisons. Soon after that, my own position was moved under the prison education department. I lost a lot of independence. I was assigned to a program called Bridging, which serves inmates in the reception center. The reception center holds guys in the process of transitioning from county jail to prisons all over the state. Until this point the Department of Corrections had not provided programs for that population. So the Bridging program was an attempt to remedy that. I set up drawing, poetry, origami, and collage classes. These were short-term classes because the guys were shipped off to other prisons after six weeks or so. One of the challenges of that job was that the inmates were assigned to these classes, whereas in the past, I’d only worked with guys who volunteered to take art classes. So it meant I was working with students who didn’t necessarily want to be in class.

William James executive director Laurie Brooks and I started strategizing about how to keep prison arts programming alive. Laurie and Jack Bowers, a retired artist facilitator, testified before the state legislature. But that work didn’t bear fruit right away. We survived in those years on small grants from nonprofits.

Laurie Brooks, Alma Robinson, and Jack Bowers presenting at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Laurie Brooks, Alma Robinson, and Jack Bowers presenting at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Next installment: The Dalai Lama Breaks All the Rules

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.

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