David Beck-Brown - Writer - Arts in Corrections

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David Beck-Brown

  Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown
(Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown)

The High Price of Prison Riots

By David Beck-Brown

A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) Newsletter
March, 2007

A recent inmate riot at Centinela State Prison left the prison splattered in blood. An eye witness said ambulances were lined up preparing to enter and exit the sally port with stabbed, beaten and maimed inmates. The public rarely hears about these riots. The drab prison grey of concrete and steel sparkled with the brilliant red of spilled blood. The sound of the thumping helicopter blades beating the thin desert air soon subsided. The prison was placed on lock down and the desert became eerily still. The quiet masked the hidden danger now slowly soaking into the dry desert sand.

Diseases are transferred through blood. Approximately forty percent of California prison inmates have hepatitis. The state will not release the number of HIV positive inmates. However, mopping up the blood must be done with care.  

Inmate medical care is expensive. California’s prison medical system is under court ordered receivership and managed by Robert Sillen, the newly appointed medical czar. He has unprecedented authority do what he must to improve inmate health care. To attract qualified physicians, the annual salary for doctors has been increased to $250,000. With benefits, Sillen’s annual wage is $500,000. The doctor shortage has physicians being recruited from countries as far away as Africa. Interpreters are also being hired to work with these non-English speaking physicians. If necessary, doctors will be flown into isolated prisons and paid for a week’s wages to conduct several hours of work; or, paid to drive from San Francisco to distant prisons in Blythe.  

Prior to the court ordered receivership, one inmate per week was dying because of medical neglect.

An inmate hospitalized in a public medical facility must be guarded by at least one correctional officer. The starting salary of correctional officers is $63,000. With overtime, many correctional officers earned well over $100,000. The annual overtime cost at each of California’s 33 state prisons is in the millions of dollars. California is preparing to build more prison space.

Prison riots are costly. Correctional officers on disability collect their pay while away from the work site. What is the cost of medical care for injured inmates and disabled correctional officers? How much do ambulances and emergency helicopters cost to maintain and operate?

The frequency of prison riots could be reduced. Inmate programs defuse tensions and make our prisons safer for inmates and staff alike. The example of the original Arts-in-Corrections program is often cited because it was well documented before being cut by 90% in 2003. This inmate program lowered inmate recidivism and prison assaults, as well as the destruction of state property. Other inmate rehabilitation programs are believed to be as successful at making our prisons safer.

Despite these successes, many of these programs, including Art-in-Corrections were cut to the bare bones in a public display at lowering the state deficit. Each prison had an Arts-in-Corrections program with an annual budget of $27,000 for the hiring of a dozen or so Contract Artists. These artists engaged the inmates in problem-solving tasks and encouraged self-reflection, self-examination and personal rehabilitation. The inmates changed for the better. Some inmates left their gang affiliations. The modest Contract Artist budget was far less than the $44,000 annual cost of housing and feeding one inmate.

Located in Imperial Valley, Centinela State Prison’s Arts-in-Correction program has been dormant for several years. Few people at the prison know about the arts program. Fewer people working in headquarters at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation understand the history and achievements of prison arts program. Could an active arts program have defused Centinela State Prison’s riot?

The Boston Globe recently printed an article on Pablo Friedmann who formerly headed the arts program at Calipatria State Prison, also located in Imperial Valley:

“Friedmann said he witnessed art’s power to calm the aggressive and awaken passion in people who had feared that they had long lost the ability to feel. 

Friedmann recalled two men who thanked him for changing their lives. They were inmates at Calipatria State Prison in California, where he managed an arts program for a decade.

One ‘had muscles bigger than my thighs,’ said Friedmann. ‘He told me that he listened to voices that tell him what to do.’ He encouraged the man to funnel those voices into his art. When the man finished his painting, he turned and said, ‘Pablo, you’re the first person who really understands me,’ and began to cry.

Another inmate, who had never before painted, discovered he had a real talent. ‘I now have a profession, a purpose for leaving prison, he told Friedmann.”

Chances are that neither of these inmates would have participated in a prison riot. Some people may cringe at the thought of funding a prison arts program. The positive humanitarian benefits of having well-adjusted inmates leaving prison and reentering our society is priceless. Compare the modest cost of funding an inmate art program to the cost of a prison riot. Riots cost Californians millions of dollars.

Reestablishing the original Arts-in-Corrections is a good investment. A modest $27,000 is needed for the hourly wages of several Contract Artists, and $14,000 for supplies. This will enable creative projects, including painting murals for display in the prison and community. The program occupies the inmate’s time, thoughts and attention. At an average reading grade level of 7.5, the art-making process allows many inmates to express themselves in a socially acceptable way. Their pent up anger needs a creative outlet; it’s either that or violence. Inmates engaged in an arts program are protective of it and don’t want to loose their privilege working in the program. Their behavior improves.

Preventative inmate programs like Arts-in-Corrections are at the heart of prison reform. These programs cost a fraction of the price of inmate medical care and mopping up after a prison riot. The bottom line: buying paint is cheaper than cleaning up blood.


David Beck-Brown is the Prison Reform chair with A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) and has worked with incarcerated convicts since 1977.