Prisoner's Scarlett Johansson Portrait Provides Path Towards Redemption

Inmate Greg Colignese's sketch of Scarlett Johansson is getting some color. (Photo: Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Solano State Prison inmate Greg Colignese, 45, is taking a drawing and painting class. About 20 others prisoners sit around tables in one of the prison’s recreation rooms. They’re working on all kinds of art projects like print-making, pencil sketching and painting.

Colignese's subject is a headshot of actress Scarlett Johansson, based on a photograph on the cover of Interview magazine. His medium of choice? Oil. Colignese mixes different colored paints in an effort to capture the perfect cotton candy-colored hue of the Hollywood actress' skin color. “I’ve always wanted to work with oil,” says Colignese. “I've been incarcerated 25 years and I've never had an opportunity to do oil.”

Fine arts education may be one of the last things you think of when it comes to rehabilitation in California’s state prisons. But prisoners across the California Department of Corrections’ 34 facilities once had access to theater, music, creative writing and visual arts classes. The classes were offered as part of a program called Arts-In-Corrections -- and it actually worked.

Now after a nearly decade long hiatus, the program has been making a slow comeback over the past two years. 18 of the state's prisons participated in a re-pilot of the program.

A select group of Solano State Prison inmates get time once a week to paint and draw.
A select group of Solano State Prison inmates get time once a week to paint and draw. (Photo: Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Colignese, who is in prison for second-degree murder, is no stranger to these arts classes. He says he first started out learning creative writing with Arts-In-Corrections. Colignese says now he's glad to have art back in his life. “In a lot of ways I feel that this program actually saved my life because had I stayed on the path I was on who knows what would've happened,” Colignese says.

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A long history

Arts-In-Corrections came into being in the late 1970s in a partnership with the California Arts Council. It was one of the prison system's most popular rehabilitation programs and the most comprehensive prison arts program in the U.S., according to arts council director Craig Watson. “It’s work that we were internationally known for in the 1980s and 1990s and even a little bit into the 2000s,” Watson says.

Santa Cruz Musician and teacher Jack Bowers was one of the first to teach art in a state prison. He conducted music classes at Soledad Prison for over 20 years. “There were people there who had just this incredible desire to learn and express themselves through music and the arts,” Bowers says. “That was just really inspiring to me.”

An inmate is putting final touches on an oil painting of actress Gabourey Sidibe.
An inmate is putting final touches on an oil painting of actress Gabourey Sidibe. (Photo: Tiffany Camhi)

A path to rehab

A study done six years into the arts program found a number of benefits for inmates who took the classes. These included improved self-worth, better behavior and a lower recidivism rate. “There was a definite reduction in the return to prison by those prisoners that had been successfully active in Arts-In-Corrections," says Watson.

Arts-In-Corrections was also cheap to run. At the program’s height in the mid 1990’s, the annual budget was close to $3 million. That’s nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars the state spent on other rehabilitative programs at that time.

But because of the recession and mass incarceration, funding for the program began to dry up in the early 2000s. By 2010 it was completely gone. Some prisons, notably San Quentin, were able to hold on to their programs through private funding. But most lost all arts offerings.

Making a comeback

However, thanks to advocates like artist teachers, former inmates and lawmakers, the program is making a slow comeback. Arts-In-Corrections is just emerging from a two-year pilot phase. “I think as it continues people will start to see how it can change people, how it can help people and ultimately how it can be one of the things that maybe helps someone go home and never come back,” says State prison spokeswoman Krissi KhoKhobashvili.

Those on the inside, like inmate Greg Colignese, are relieved to have a positive outlet once again. Colignese says art has helped him grow. “I was one of these young kids that kept everything pent up inside,” Colignese says. “I didn't wanna talk to people about my problems and so that was instrumental in me beginning the long journey towards change.”

Arts-In-Corrections will stick around for at least one more year. The state has earmarked $4 million for the program in its budget. That's enough to expand the program to all of the state’s prisons.

Editors Note: More interviews, photos and re-prints of visual art from inmates who have participated in Arts-In-Corrections is available in a recent book co-authored by Dr. Larry Brewster and Peter Merts. You can find it online here.