Escape Through Art

Photo: Donald Satterlee

On a half-finished canvas, a gray, weathered boardwalk winds around grass-tufted dunes, then dips down toward the sea. Gail Gutierrez McDermid, a diminutive figure in a wine-red jacket and black skirt, steps up to the painting. It could be an art studio anywhere--a teacher appraising a work, a pupil listening. But this is Solano State Prison. McDermid, '66, is administrator of California's Arts in Corrections program, and the artist, Robert Small, is an inmate serving 15 years to life for murder.

The cluttered studio in the two-story education building is an oasis of quiet where men can forget they are surrounded by three 19-foot-high fences, the middle one electrified with 5,100 volts. With fortress-like windows slitted into drab concrete walls, Solano, located 45 miles from Sacramento in the town of Vacaville, resembles an X-Files government research laboratory. But instead it holds 4,800 prisoners, some of whom are California's most dangerous offenders.

Small is one of the fortunate few who are part of the arts program here in Solano. A short, muscular African-American man in his mid-30s, he gestures at his painting. "I'm doing a series of seascapes," Small says. Having served only nine years of his sentence, it will be a long time before Small sees the ocean again.

Behind him, four other inmates work at a bench carving clay tiles for a large ceramic mural of the Virgin Mary. Two of them are murderers, and the other two are parole violators serving sentences on arms possession. "This program makes sure that they don't lose their humanity," McDermid says. Small is less philosophical. "In here you have people who punch a bag to get out their hostilities," he says. "Me, just give me a piece of paper and a pencil and I'll cope."

Arts in Corrections (AIC) began as a pilot project in 1977. Now there are AIC programs in 32 prisons across the state, ranging from vocal jazz classes in Vacaville Medical Facility to creative writing in San Quentin State Prison. As part of her job, McDermid administers the contracts for approximately 500 artists who provide some 35,000 hours of workshops and performances. She also oversees the 32 artist facilitators who run the programs in each of the prisons.

Teaching art to murderers is hardly what McDermid imagined for herself back when she was taking premed courses at Stanford. But after a semester in France and drawing classes with Professor Nathan Oliveira, she decided in her senior year to change her major to art. After graduation, McDermid studied sculpture in Spain on a Fulbright Scholarship and taught art at Foothill and Cabrillo community colleges. She began teaching art classes in the prison system in 1985. In 1990, she was promoted to assistant manager of the AIC program and moved to the Sacramento area with her husband and their three children.

As manager of the $3 million annual program since 1993, McDermid visits prisons two or three times a month. But no matter how many times she enters the gates, she is always wary. "You have to remember where you are," she says. "These prisoners are not here because they're boy scouts."

In this era when politicians want to be known as tough on crime, it is surprising that the program survives. But it lives on because it works. A 1983 report by researchers at San Jose State University found a 75 percent improvement in the behavior of inmates who participated in AIC programs. And a 1987 California Department of Corrections report showed that only 31 percent of inmates who had participated in the arts program returned to prison--as opposed to 58 percent overall.

But it is passion rather than percentages that keeps artists like Armando Cid working in the prisons. In his flowered shirt and fawn Dockers, Cid stands out next to the tilemaking crew at Solano in their standard-issue blue jeans and blue shirts. As artist facilitator, Cid teaches painting and sculpture and organizes other artists to lead classes. "Here, inmates are allowed to explore and make mistakes without being seen as bad," he says. "But they're also validated on their accomplishments."

Cid pulls a carving knife out of the soft red clay and cleans it. AIC inmates earn entrance to the program through good behavior credits and in turn are trusted with all kinds of tools. Cid points to the outstretched hands of the clay Virgin. "We're reviving a very old Etruscan style of tile making," he explains. "We subtract the clay, we don't add pieces that are already carved to an existing tile surface. But completing the work is slow. We need a new oven to fire the tiles."

McDermid smiles knowingly; that's one of the reasons she's here. "Gail is our lobbyist and our advocate in Sacramento," Cid says. "She is the last resort if we need something done."

While McDermid listens to Cid's case for a new oven, one of the tilemakers, inmate John Lucero, points out a series of American Indian paintings on the walls. Lucero, 35, was imprisoned for second-degree murder when he was 18. As one of Cid's paid assistants, Lucero helps prepare the various projects. Married in prison, before conjugal visits were suspended, Lucero has a 6-month-old daughter and hopes to be paroled in the next few years. "I plan to work in the arts when I'm released," he says, his boyish face belied by a gray prison pallor. "I hope to work with children in the Isleta pueblo in New Mexico."

McDermid walks back from the oven and examines some of the fired tiles at another table. "We've found that when inmates are involved in the creative process, time goes away," McDermid says. "They begin accessing a part of the brain that they lost when they started getting into trouble." Then she pauses and glances around the gray walls decorated with oil paintings, posters and pencil drawings. "But you have to beware of becoming involved with the life of the inmate," she says. "You can be friendly in order to get along but you can't be friends with inmates."

It's 9:30 p.m. After a visit to the Vacaville Medical Facility, McDermid is making her last stop of the day at San Quentin, where she reviews a new teacher brought in from Ohio. Rocco Di Pietro has just lectured to eight inmates--one white, one Hispanic and six black prisoners--on the perceived nature of time in communities ranging from aboriginal Australians to modern physicists. Watching the startled but enraptured reactions of the inmates as they debate with Di Pietro, McDermid decides to invite him back for a series of lectures in the spring.

As the heavy outer gate slams shut behind her, McDermid faces the inevitable question: "Why should the taxpayer pay for art classes for murderers?" It's a cold, raw night but McDermid stops and nods slowly, as though she has heard the question a thousand times. "Some of these men will be out in a year, some in five, some in 10," she says, gesturing behind her at the brooding Victorian facade of the prison. "But almost all will come out. They'll live in your town, shop with you in the supermarket, pass you on the street. I'd rather they were creating art than consumed by anger. Wouldn't you?"