Arts in Corrections: Then and Now


Prison arts programs are not a new idea. As far back as the 1940s, prison warden Clinton Truman Duffy, son of a former prison guard, decided San Quentin State Prison was in need of reform—for the sake of those who were incarcerated, institutional staff, and to better prepare individuals to return to society.

Duffy initiated groundbreaking rehabilitative programs for people who served time in prison. Newspapers were published and radio stations operated. Music, painting, and other art forms were practiced at the institution.  

1970s - Formation of Arts in Corrections

The California Arts Council was established in 1976 and was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. Artist Eloise Smith was appointed as the Council's first director. After viewing artwork created by those experiencing incarceration, she was inspired by their raw talent and the impact that the arts appeared to have on their lives.

In 1977, after serving on the California Arts Council, Smith and her husband, historian Charles Page Smith, created the Prison Arts Project through a pilot program at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. She secured funding by the San Francisco Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, and the Law Enforcement Assistant Administration. The fiscal agent for the project was a nonprofit organization created by the Smiths—the William James Association. 

The pilot was a huge success, spurring support and funding from the state Legislature and the Governor. The Prison Arts Project served as the model for what would come to be known as Arts in Corrections. It was the first program of its kind, eventually expanding to all institutions across the state of California.

Early 2000s - Budget Cuts

In 2003, Arts in Corrections began to dwindle in size due to the state budget crisis. By 2010, state funding of the program had come to a complete halt.

Following budget cuts, arts programming continued by organizations and artists working on a volunteer basis or through private funds. Many partnering organizations advocated for the return of the program, including the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, Marin Shakespeare Company, and the William James Association, as well as the California Lawyers for the Arts.

2013 - Call It a Comeback

In 2013 and 2014, the California Arts Council and the California Department Corrections and Rehabilitation partnered up to develop a pilot to bring Arts in Corrections back to the California's correctional facilities in support of the state's rehabilitative goals. On the heels of the pilot’s success, Arts in Corrections is now a highly successful and globally recognized program administered by the California Arts Council, reaching every state adult correctional institution in California.