Program teaches incarcerated adults new ways of coping, potentially reduces recidivism

The Aspen Art Museum (AAM) has partnered with Pitkin County Jail to create arts education programming for incarcerated adults. Since its inception in 2007, this ongoing program has brought art to over 100 inmates in the Pitkin County facility. Studies have proven that this type of program can have a significant impact on inmates’ behavior while incarcerated, and substantially increase their chances for success upon release.

Pitkin County Jail Administrator, Deputy Don Bird, commented: “Enforced idleness is a reality of daily inmate life. Combating this with something beyond just watching TV is a challenge, and the Aspen Art Museum’s program has been a boon in this regard. It gives inmates an opportunity to discover something positive about themselves, and to experience a sense of accomplishment.”

Every other Monday, an AAM educator visits the jail facility, bringing art supplies, exhibition catalogs, and images of the museum’s current exhibition. The program begins with a brief description of the show and background information on the artists. Discussions may focus on such topics as self-portraiture, landscape, abstraction, photography, or artistic styles like graffiti art, expressionism, and minimalism.

Participants then spend an hour making artwork in response to the discussion. Projects may include painting, collage, pastels, drawing with pencils or pen, paper cutouts and silhouettes, and even basic printmaking. All inmates are invited to attend, so long as their participation does not pose a security risk. The program is conducted in the commons room, under the watchful eye of the deputies on duty. Though security issues can pose potential challenges for educators, Aspen Art Museum educator Genna Collins maintains that these are not insurmountable.

“The Pitkin County Jail has been very flexible with the materials we are allowed to bring in, as long as we account for them first and make sure that we have the same number of items when we leave,” she commented. “No AAM educators have ever felt unsafe leading the program.”

Studies of similar programs have shown significant improvement in participants’ behavior while incarcerated. According to studies conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the State University of New York College at Purchase, prison inmates who participated in creative art programs exhibited higher levels of positive coping skills, decreased anger levels, and spent fewer days in punitive confinement. In comparison to control groups, they were shown to be more dependable, more socially mature, and more likely to pursue other voluntary education programs.

The AAM partnership and similar programs are successful because they use the creative arts as a tool for transforming poor communication skills, rigid belief systems, low confidence levels and a lack of self-control. Left unchanged, these factors can sometimes contribute to patterns of criminal behavior and recidivism.

Agreed Don Bird: “Inmates who participate in the program sometimes have to overcome their discomfort with trying something new.” It would seem, however, that the reward for their efforts is a more positive approach to life.

“Art and art-making can be useful as a coping mechanism,” said Collins. “We hope that when participants are presented with challenging situations in the future, these tools will have a positive impact.”

Statistics concerning inmates’ behavior post-jail are not tracked, however, Collins notes that she has seen few inmates return to Pitkin County Jail.

“We often get letters from former inmates expressing their thanks for the overall positive experiences here, for how they were treated at our facility, and for opportunities like the art class,” said Don Bird.

Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, noted that the program poses a unique opportunity for the museum to be of service to the Aspen community.

“One key focus of the Aspen Art Museum is to partner with the community in as many ways as possible. The Pitkin County Jail partnership allows us to help foster one of the most important aspects of building good communities: communication. We believe the experience of art can create better citizens, locally and globally,” commented Zuckerman.

About the Museum

The Aspen Art Museum is a non-collecting institution presenting the newest, most important evolutions in international contemporary art. Our innovative and timely exhibitions, education and public programs, immersive activities, and community happenings actively engage audiences in thought-provoking experiences of art, culture, and society.

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Sunday, noon to 6:00 p.m.
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