Temporarily Free: Project Youth ArtReach Brings the Arts to Jail

Community can mean something different to everyone. To some, community is their place of worship, and to others, it’s their local theater troupe or intramural softball team. One segment of the population that is typically excluded from the overarching term “community” is the inmates in our area jails and correctional facilities. “Out of sight, out of mind” is an apt phrase to describe the offenders we never see or hear from. What people don’t consider is that “90 percent of our inmates are released right back into our own community,” as David Clearwater, case manager at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility stated. “He’s going to be right back there and he could be one of our next-door neighbors.”

Class Acts Arts, a Silver Spring, Maryland, nonprofit and frequent NEA grantee, recognized this fact and acted on it. For about a decade, their program, Project Youth ArtReach, has offered a wide array of arts courses—from mural painting to storytelling—to court-appointed youths at correctional facilities and probation offices. Curiously, unlike libraries or cooking classes, it’s not common to find arts programs in jails or prisons, though the arts are routinely proven to rehabilitate inmates. In fact, NEA Accessibility Director Beth Bienvenu noted, “Engagement in arts activities has been shown to improve inmates' problem-solving skills, self-discipline, levels of patience, and ability to work with others. These skills also help offenders upon release—improving employment outcomes and reducing recidivism. So professionally-led arts programming in correctional facilities can be a valuable part of education, rehabilitation, job training, and the development of soft skills.”

The administration at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility (MCCF) understands this. According to MCCF Director of Rehabilitation and Correction Arthur Wallenstein, the arts are also an effective tool to keep those in jail secure and safe, which is the facility’s number one priority.

This video explores the positive impact of a very popular djembe drumming class in the Youthful Offender Unit at the MCCF. The eight-week course is taught by Ghanaian Master Drummers Kofi Dennis and Kwame Ansah-Brew, and facilitated by Director of Project Youth ArtReach Claire Schwadron.   

Special thanks to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility administration for allowing us to record inside the facility. (Note: the faces of the inmates were not allowed to be shown.)