Homestead Correctional Institution (HCI), a women’s state prison in Miami-Dade County, Florida, might seem an unlikely haven for redemption, but for many of the women incarcerated here, that’s what it is—thanks to Leslie Neal. Neal is Founder and Artistic Director of ArtSpring, a unique prison arts program that helps women connect to a creative, self-affirming space of inner freedom, often for the first time in their lives.
These uniquely designed classes often include concerts and theater performances to which prisoners, family and other outside community members are invited. Developed over 20 years, Neal’s programs are so popular with the women and respected by prison administrators that at least one class is available every day. “Once they start taking classes, they never want to stop,” says Neal. “Currently, approximately 445 of the 700 inmates participate in at least one class. We offer prerequisite, beginning, intermediate and advanced classes. Then we also provide mentoring and teaching opportunities through which women themselves guide and train other inmates.”
Over the past several decades, the number of women in U.S. prisons has been growing at a faster rate than that of men, largely due to the war on drugs and mandatory sentencing for drug crimes.1 This increase in the female prison population makes women’s rehabilitation a crucial national issue—which is why programs offered by ArtSpring are so important. Working in prisons since 1994, ArtSpring is one of the longest running arts-in-corrections programs in Florida and today offers workshops in dance, visual arts, theater, music, creative writing and poetry to over 1200 women inmates and juveniles a year.
ArtSpring programs help inmates learn behavioral and social skills that will aid them in their life transitions while incarcerated and upon release. And the proof is not just anecdotal: “The recidivism rate in Florida is close to 30%,” says Neal, “which means one of every three inmates released from a Florida prison returns to prison within three years.2 We’ve had hundreds of women pass through our programs in the last 19 years, and roughly 100 students who were enrolled in our programs for at least a year are now released. Of that 100, only one has returned.”3
The women at HCI have been locked down most of their lives. “The numbers are heartbreaking,” says Neal. “Official statistics say between 40–60% of women in prisons have been victims of physical or sexual abuse, but I find it’s more like 99 or 100%.”4 Often victims since childhood, the inmates are further victimized in a prison system set up for men.5
“Prison is primarily based on a male military model,” Neal explains. “Everything about it is male. The inmates are housed in barracks. They’re not allowed to touch each other. If someone has lost a family member, they aren’t allowed to be hugged or comforted. There is often a considerable lack of medical care, education, physical exercise and programs specifically designed for women.
“The women are called by their assigned state numbers,” she continues. “They are screamed at, humiliated and sexually humiliated. They are stripped naked in front of male and female guards and body searched—think about what that’s like if they are on their periods? They are shackled, hands and feet, even when they are transported to hospitals to deliver their babies.”
Neal’s direct understanding of women’s unique prison experience is largely supported by research that identifies important gender distinctions in the prison population. For example, whereas 54% of men in state prison are incarcerated for violent crimes, less than 37% of women are.6 Of those incarcerated for violent crimes, many were committed against intimate partners, often in the context of physical or sexual abuse.7
Women in prison suffer from mental illness and sexual and physical abuse at rates higher than men.8 And women in prison are far more likely than men to have been the primary caretakers for their children.9 These gender distinctions are the foundation of efforts to address female inmates’ specific needs and to identify programs that help rehabilitate women and reduce recidivism. Many findings are simply common sense: women in prisons benefit from emotional responsiveness by administration and staff, and they benefit from a caring environment and from community support, including female peer role models. Programs that address victimization and self-esteem issues, addiction and parenting are helpful.10
Programs that address victimization and self-esteem issues, addiction and parenting are helpful.
ArtSpring brings many of these identified elements into HCI, treating women as human beings, providing them with a community in which other women are mentors and teachers, and creating a caring and emotionally responsive environment. ArtSpring’s goals include creating and serving a community of diverse women to promote respect, cooperation and cultural understanding. The curriculum is designed to explore issues of self-esteem and stimulate personal responsibility through the creative process. And it works. Success is measured by the lower-than-average 2% recidivism rate and by participants themselves, who fill out extensive self-evaluation forms at the end of their classes.
Women almost always report improvements not just in “creativity” and “self-expression,” as one would expect through art courses, but in other areas, including self-esteem, stress reduction, a sense of unity and connection, and a decrease in disciplinary reports (which usually result in women being sent to solitary confinement for at least 30 days and sometimes for months).
And it works. Success is measured by the lower-than-average 2% recidivism rate and by participants themselves, who fill out extensive self-evaluation forms at the end of their classes.
While ArtSpring provides many of the identifiable elements shown to help rehabilitate women prisoners, it also offers something less easy to describe. As an arts program, it offers the power of creativity: an ineffable opportunity to explore foundational and intimate aspects of oneself and share those depths with others.
And while the results of ArtSpring’s programs can be measured through recidivism rates and evaluation tools, much of what takes place in ArtSpring classes warrants examination through a less analytical lens that honors the role of creativity in human transformation. First and foremost, the foundation of creativity is a safe space, which is not easy to find in prison.
A Space for Freedom
“Regardless of the class,” says Neal, “whether it’s music or theater or visual arts—our instructors put a lot of effort into creating a safe environment where the women feel comfortable. It is a safe space, and they know it. They come from the prison atmosphere, where they have to become hardened to survive, and they come into a space where they can be vulnerable and trust each other.”
“I’ve been in prison for 30 years,” says Marilyn R., who is serving a life sentence. “You walk the compound. You play a role. You can’t allow your vulnerability out there—because the button is there and someone’s going to push it. So you put your armor on … And it’s good to come into class. I’m not good at dancing, but it gives me a vehicle to explore and to embrace what’s good and what’s beautiful. I can stand back and I can watch my sisters and say, ‘Oh, isn’t that beautiful!’”
ArtSpring instructors work hard to maintain a safe space, undermining women’s self-doubt or self-judgments that inhibit creativity. This is not an easy task in prison, where inmates are living a life defined and limited by judgment.
“Every day you wake up here and you are judged,” says Deirdre H. “One mistake has changed your entire life … the people here judge you every day, no matter what.” But ArtSpring classes are a continual invitation to an inner space that is essentially expansive and free of judgment.
“In a drawing class, a woman might say, ‘I don’t like it; I made a mistake!’” says Neal. “And we tell her, ‘But look, that’s the most interesting part!’”
“The core of what we teach is to always point them back to their experience. We encourage self-reflection. We don’t tell them what they are going to learn. We ask them, ‘What did you experience in that exercise? What did you learn? What are you feeling now? What did you like? What didn’t you like?’ They are continually given ways to know themselves, see themselves and express themselves that are free of expectations and limitations.”
Neal explains that while all the classes lead women into this creativity and expansion, the dance class provides the quickest vehicle to freedom: “The movement classes are improvisational; the women move spontaneously, exploring the flow of their own bodies. I see women suddenly start to feel more comfortable with themselves through breath work and simple movements. There can be a complete change of expression and body language. Suddenly they can look at each other, and at me, in the eye. Suddenly they are alive.
“Improvisation means play, and through this exploration they become children again. The body that they have shut down for so many years begins to be a form of healthy expression and freedom and innocence. After the movement part of the class, the women share about their experience. They say, ‘I feel free. I’ve found that sense of play and fun and laughter … It’s like I found the childhood I never had.’”
The return to innocence often happens simultaneously with the release of memories or feelings related to past violence and abuse, providing opportunities for healing.
The return to innocence often happens simultaneously with the release of memories or feelings related to past violence and abuse, providing opportunities for healing. “Most of the women who come to class have dissociated from their bodies, because they do not want to feel,” says Leslie. “The class can provide a way to release the pain from their past and let go of the armor they have put on to protect themselves in the present. Then there is a process of unfolding, letting go, and feeling. Many times this is the first opportunity for women to express feelings about the past, and when they do it in a community, they learn they are not alone.”
Transforming the Prison
Loosening the shackles of judgment, criticism and fear, and replacing them with the experience of vulnerability, community and freedom, have immediate impacts on the women, many of whom have never had the opportunity to express themselves in a safe environment. And not surprisingly, it has an immediate impact on the prison environment.
“Through creative exploration, the women’s choices get broader,” explains Neal. “In our classes, things are no longer black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. I see this as the transformative power of the arts—that the creative process can open you up to new ways of knowing yourself and being with others. It’s limitless!
“The women tell me that they now know they have choices,” Neal continues. “On the compound, an officer can come up to them and scream and yell, but now they can take it. They don’t have to react, or yell back. So they don’t. They choose not to.
“One woman told me about being yelled at by a guard and how she understood she didn’t need to react to that. She said to me, ‘Now I see that he must be so unhappy. What a terrible way to live.’ To be able to see and know that … that’s freedom.”
The women of ArtSpring have transformed the entire prison. “The chapel presentations have changed,” says Neal. “The skits and plays for Women’s History Month or Black History have become more creative. The decorations they might do for Christmas are more interesting. The chorus has added a ‘moving choir’ component. The women have created an aesthetic environment for the entire prison community, and a much more appealing work environment for staff. It is a life-affirming process that humanizes time spent in prison and softens the edge of what can be an alienating and destructive experience for all who walk through the gates. There is less idle time, less acting up, less violence. Everyone recognizes this as a win-win situation.”
James Thornton, Assistant Warden at Homestead, concurs. “I see that being involved in this, they have another channel in which they can express themselves,” he says. “I’m sure it has reduced violence.”
“You see,” says Neal, “what starts to happen is that the arts bring humanity into the facility.”
The “humanity” Neal refers to is awakened in everyone. “The guards can come in anytime,” she explains. “They can stop the class, do a count. So they are there—and they watch. Some of them are assigned to attend our community presentations; and they watch the women perform, they see them dance, read poetry, express themselves. After that, they can no longer see them just as numbers, just as criminals. Suddenly, these criminals are human beings—daughters, mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers.”
“After 30 years emphasizing punishment and a ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ attitude, prisons are looking at the realities of recidivism,” she explains.
Changes in the wider prison community are not unintentional. The imperatives to build and give back to community are prominent in ArtSpring’s classes and therefore become so in the women’s thoughts and actions. The classes always include an emphasis on helping women develop the skills, power and awareness to live as “good neighbors.” This community element is critical to Neal, who knows that the rehabilitation of prisoners in this country depends not only on individual prisoners becoming more awake to community connection and responsibility, but on society at large becoming more part of the rehabilitation process.
“After 30 years emphasizing punishment and a ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ attitude, prisons are looking at the realities of recidivism,” she explains. “They need to lower recidivism rates but their budgets don’t cover the cost of effective programs. So prisons like HCI are coming to understand what a resource it is to have community organizations funded by other sources come into the prisons and do the work.”
Breaking down the walls between “inside” and “outside” makes sense. Eventually, there will be no walls for most prisoners, and preparing for this reality before prisoners are released increases their chance for success, and at the same time lowers the crime rates in the communities they will rejoin.
As inmate Marilyn R. put it, as she spoke to an audience of people from both the prison and the outside after an ArtSpring performance: “One day I’m going to live next door to you. What is it worth to you to make sure you get a good neighbor—me? Well, that doesn’t just happen. I have to be a good neighbor in here. It’s a mindset that ArtSpring has given us, and we really work at it. We try to be better people. We try to help those who come behind [us]. We really do. That’s what ArtSpring does, that’s what ArtSpring means to this compound. Leslie’s legacy to us is: And what are you doing for your community?”