Jails across the country are overcrowded, and more than half of the 13 million people who are released from local jails each year return. Substance abuse often factors into their return. It costs communities millions of dollars and has corrections officials and policy researchers scrambling for new approaches.
Amy Solomon of the Urban Institute studies these issues.
“They’re thinking about treatment and programming and assessment and connections with families and things that will enhance the odds that people will succeed when they get out,” Solomon says.
“They,” in this case, means the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections. Since 2004, the department has developed programs that reduce recidivism. The department has drug and alcohol programs and teaches classes in job searching, financial management and strengthening family relationships.
Now, art is being woven into these efforts. It started two years ago when Linda Zundel, a social worker with the department, got a call from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. It had received a $50,000 donation. The anonymous donor had visited a loved one in the jail and found the experience traumatic for her and her child. She wanted art to make a difference.
“I mean I just remember getting the call and thinking, ‘Well, I wonder what this really means,'” Zundel says. “We really weren’t sure how art was going to come into corrections.”
Since then Zundel has worked with the foundation and local artists to put art in places for inmates and their families.
Sundays this month, artists like Terry Wunderlish are on hand at tables set up in the basement of the Hall of Justice. Here, the lighting is dark and the air smells faintly like the sewer. People wait to talk to inmates via video screens in an adjacent room.
Wunderlish and other volunteers unpack paper, pens and stickers. The kids line up to sit and draw. Wunderlish hands them each a sheet asking them to give hope a color.
“Pick a color you think means ‘hope,'” Wunderlish tells them. “And then you can, you know, pick the color of paper and put stickers on it and draw a picture if you want and then we can all hang it up and make a little, like a banner.”
“Really?” asks one child.
“That’s cool,” says another.
Alexis is eight and Caitlin three. They’ve been here on several visits to see their father, who has been in and out of jail over the past two years. Their mother, Crystal, says it’s been hard on them.
“It’s upsetting because their father’s incarcerated,” Crystal says. “But while they’re waiting, they don’t have to be sad. They can keep themselves occupied and enjoy themselves by doing the art projects.”
Wunderlish and Zundel say programs for children with incarcerated parents help reduce stress during visitation and help children think in ways that will help them not follow in that parent’s footsteps.
One block away, families also visit the gray lobby at the jail where they can deposit money into an inmate’s account and meet a prisoner after release. This month the lobby will change when a ceramic mural goes up along one of the room’s long walls. Local sculptor Joyce Ogden is managing the project. It started with a survey.
“We were blown away by how people identified with art and that they could have a message,” Ogden says. “And ultimately that they wanted to convey a message of hope and change.”
In the art studio at Spalding University, where Ogden also teaches, she shows me a detailed drawing by one inmate of a car dashboard overlooking a horizon.
“These are the flat tiles that are getting the artwork,” Ogden says.
“What does that say?” I ask her about the words at the bottom of one tile.
“Somewhere else, 100 miles,” she answers.
Social worker Linda Zundel says she sees all of these efforts working to improve the odds for inmates to succeed when they get out. But she’s still not sure how to keep this going — including the art activities for children — the foundation’s funding runs out.
“We’re looking at some other community-minded people volunteering their time to come in and either read stories to the kids or do more art activities like this because we don’t really have a long-term plan yet,” Zundel says. “We’re just trying to see if this is going to work and it’s worthwhile.”
The Transition from Jail to Community Initiative, a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections and the Urban Institute
A Report from the Urban Institute: Life After Lockup: Improving Reentry from Jail to the Community
A Report from the Urban Institute: Understanding the Needs and Experiences of Children of Incarcerated Parents