Arts for Incarcerated Women

Leslie Neal from Homestead, FL

The Project

Based upon the belief that art has the power to heal and transform lives, Leslie Neal, a dance professor at a local university founded ArtSpring, a 501(c)(3) organization in Florida in 1994. ArtSpring offers high quality art classes to incarcerated women at no cost to the Florida Department of Corrections delivering ongoing interdisciplinary arts programs that promote personal growth, self-esteem, and effective life skill development. In 2010, Florida spent $2.4 billion on more than 100,000 inmates. Leslie realized Florida was spending more money warehousing inmates than funding higher education. With 10,000 inmates being released each month in her county alone, the result is a predictable train wreck – unprepared inmates released into communities that are unable to absorb the economic and social burden. Women lack the supportive services needed to reintegrate into society. 33% will return to prison within 3 years. Leslie began alone, teaching one program, Inside Out and now 18 years later, ArtSpring offers classes in theatre, dance, creative writing, meditation, visual arts and music. It has not been easy; teaching humanity where women are called by their number and punishment has replaced rehabilitation. But ArtSpring’s results are impressive. The skills that are learned in our workshops enhance self worth and promote positive change. Of the 40 plus women who enrolled in ArtSpring’s programs for at least one year and are now released, not one has returned to prison.

The Progress

ArtSpring is nationally recognized by community artists as the only organization in the U.S. to provide ongoing multidisciplinary arts programs in prisons for over 18 years. There are no similar programs to our knowledge. Therefore, consistent adjustment and evaluation of how to conduct our programs within a very restrictive environment has proven necessary. In addition, support from administration and staff of the DOC depends on the constantly changing politics of corrections – a new Secretary is appointed with every new Governor, and now privatization poses a threat to our efforts. But, after so many years, we have survived and proven that the arts are valuable tools for personal change. Our success with tackling recidivism is due to our focus on individual empowerment and behavioral change – utilizing the time while incarcerated to reflect on their situation and encourage positive use of their time to begin the process of accountability and rehabilitation. ArtSpring represents a new paradigm of community-based programs in prison and, over many years, has shown how the arts can introduce humanity, education and healing for offenders. We have surpassed our goals by consistently meeting our budgetary needs through funding support from foundations, governmental agencies and private individuals, in a challenging economic time. However, in order to expand and replicate our best practice model to other prisons in Florida and the US, additional support is greatly needed.

The Team

ArtSpring is co-directed by the same two individuals who were founding members of ArtSpring in 1992. Both worked full time jobs and did not receive any salary support from ArtSpring until 2004. They have devoted themselves to building an organization that blends the strengths of a community arts-based curriculum with the administrative and fiscal capacity of a sustainable charity. Leslie Neal holds a BS degree in Education and a MFA in Dance. As the founder of ArtSpring, she became so dedicated to its mission that she resigned her tenured position as an Associate Professor at Florida International University in 2008, after teaching there for 20 years. She developed the curriculum for the arts programs taught by ArtSpring faculty. Nicole Bible holds Bachelor degrees in Accounting and Dance, a Master of Science in Taxation and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management. She is a CPA and has served as ED since 2004. ArtSpring hires and trains the best artists working in South Florida with a current team of 8, including one ‘alumni’ who was incarcerated for 15 years and released by Executive Clemency. ArtSpring’s Board of Directors Chair is also an ‘alumni’ and a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The entire team of ArtSpring has a proven record and is committed to the work inside and the successful transition of women back to their families and communities while simultaneously saving tax payer’s money and reducing the costs of incarceration.

The Fearless Changemaker

I started teaching "Inside Out" an arts-based program for incarcerated women in 1994 at Broward Correctional Institution (BCI), a maximum security prison in South Florida. I went each week with an incredible naivety about the community of prison, my boombox, several approved memos, a curriculum plan that would immediately unravel, and a belief that art can transform individuals and communities. Now, 18 years later, I am proud to say that my vision was true. Since the closing of BCI this past Spring, we have focused all our programming on the only remaining women’s prison in South Florida – Homestead Correctional Institution. Now, we have arts classes being taught by our amazing team of artists 6 days a week. I have seen how the arts can not only change lives, but can transform a place of punishment and negativity into a community of support and humanity. Due to our successful programming at that facility for over 12 years, the Wardens have requested that some of our students begin to teach arts programs themselves and this is a great honor to the work that ArtSpring, the organization I founded to support this work, has created. I am proud that my work has been recognized in books and articles internationally and I was presented with the Miami-Dade Cultural Alliance Ambassador of the Arts "Unsung Hero" award in 2006.
 

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