Two Faces of Prison

Maureen MurdockArt and Creativity, Criminal Justice System8 Comments

Yesterday I received my weekly email bulletin from San Quentin. A prisoner who was serving a life term with the possibility of parole, Thomas Curby Henderson,  “fell” off a fourth-story tier (imagine a catwalk 4 floors up) in the infamous West Block of the prison last Tuesday. “Fell” is a euphemism for “was thrown off.”  Who pushed him to his death is not known but the prison was “locked down” while guards investigated, examining the cells, bunks and lockers of all prisoners.

Henderson’s first parole hearing was to be on March 12th.

"Towers" by Brendan Murdock

“Towers” by Brendan Murdock

Henderson’s violent death illustrates Governor Brown’s continued refusal to  deal with prison overcrowding and the lack of rehabilitation and re-entry services in prison. In spite of the Federal mandate to overhaul California’s prison system, Governor Brown is now blackmailing the Federal Court. He is threatening to release prisoners who have had no rehabilitation programs or re-entry services by agreeing to set aside $81 million for rehabilitation programs ONLY if the court agrees to a 2-year delay.  In other words, let prisoners rot for another 2 years before any rehabilitation programs are introduced into the system.

If there had been rehabilitation programs at San Quentin instead of merely “corrections,” perhaps Henderson would not have been thrown off the tier.  We’ll never know. Since a major cause of current overcrowding in California prisons is the high number of re-offending parolees returning to prison, it makes sense to start these rehabilitation and re-entry programs now, thereby gaining the dual benefit of reducing the prison population and protecting public safety. In spite of numerous studies about the necessity of re-entry programs that provide housing, job training, and employment opportunities, Brown continues to withhold funds for these programs. One can only wonder why.

The state of California had a vibrant Arts-in-Corrections program from 1977-2010 that brought professional artists/teachers, actors, and musicians into the state prisons to teach and work with inmates. Arts programs teach self-discipline, problem solving and concentration and prisoners gain insights about themselves in the process. The Arts-in-Corrections program was de-funded in 2010 but artists and teachers continue to volunteer their time without pay to work in some prisons.

This past weekend, The Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University focused on the theme of restorative justice with an exhibition entitled “Voices of Incarceration”. The exhibit brings together works by incarcerated artists who convey their unique perspectives from inside the prison walls and those of artists who confront the American criminal justice system from outside its walls. “Both groups bring to light the emotional costs and injustices of the Prison Industrial Complex.”

As I looked at the work in this exhibit I thought about the lives, like Tom Henderson’s, wasted by the ignorance and arrogance of public officials who prefer to play power games with human lives rather than utilize creative means to bring dignity and skills to those who have the time to benefit from them. Studies show that participants in the Arts-in-Corrections program have 75% fewer disciplinary actions and a 27% lower recidivism rate than the general prison population. This translates into reduced incarceration costs to the public, as well as improved lives. 90% of inmates will return to our communities and it serves us all to offer opportunities for rehabilitation, change and hope.

8 Comments on “Two Faces of Prison”

  1. I have heard of some really wonderful programs in the LA area that work with incarcerated youth, such as Unusual Suspects and New Roads at Camp Gonzalez. Such programs can really make a difference when they provide meaningful opportunities for inmates to develop skills and self-expression with some supervised counseling, including from former inmates who know what it’s like to have to get off drugs or get out of gangs or get out of a former neighborhood to move on with one’s life. Thanks for sharing what you have learned, and may it be a blessing to Brendan.

    1. Kim, thanks for the info about programs in LA that work with incarcerated youth. The other program that works with incarcerated youth and adults throughout the United States and Europe is AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project) which focuses on communication, building community, learning alternatives to violence, and role playing. I volunteer with AVP in the San Luis Obispo Men’s Prison and it’s wonderful to see how a program like AVP empowers the inmates to make healthy decisions in their lives “inside” and when they are released.

  2. So well written and well said–the Arts and Corrections program sounds so valuable–I like very much Brendan’s art.Thanks for your blog and all it reveals–we can only hope and pray for some better solution than is out there now which appears to be “no solution”.


  3. Dear Maureen, I am a mother in Minnesota with a close circle of special friends – all parents of incarcerated young men — all with mental illness — 1 who committed suicide 2 weeks ago — another who is missing and presumed dead to fowl play after exiting prison. My son is now awaiting court for an aggravated robbery charge. I have decided to take my message public and will soon be posting on “” – a website started by Jason Lewis. It is designed for people to join together with “causes” that are on the hearts of millions of Americans, but snuffed out by politics. I hope and pray my “cause” which fits hand-in-hand with yours will be first heard locally, and then spread nationally. I am anxious for the website to be up and running soon. It is a very new way for ordinary folks to grab hands and make a difference with our families and our loved one rotting in jails and prisons with no rehabilitation let alone any hope or dignity. Once American understands that people incarcerated “rot” and became “human waste” – the worst kind of waste of our “resources”, and the realization that our public is less safe when the majority of these people are released with deteriorating mental illness – will we see a demand and outcry for a change. These are very dark times coming in the next several months. I am so saddened by your most recent post and pray for you son. Sincerely, Debbie Dondlinger

    1. Thanks, Debbie for writing and letting me know about your son and your group of friends. Please let me know when your message is up. I’ll hold good thoughts for your son as he awaits trial.

  4. Great article Maureen. I know artists who worked at Chino. Terrific work came out of the program. Good to see Brendan’s art.

  5. For such a little investment the Arts-in-Correction program could have continued to make a huge difference in the lives of the inmates both behind bars and when they return to what I dare call “society.” When we lose art, we lose our civilization. Art is the common language, the bridge between ages, and the entrance to our spiritual being, yet it is the first on the chopping block in our schools, and now our prisons. Thank you Maureen for bringing this travesty to our attention. (And the horror of the of the young man’s death is literally unspeakable.)

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