Space in Prison for the Arts and Creative Expression (SPACE)

by Janet Isserlis

Space in Prison for the Arts and Creative Expression (SPACE) is a partnership of the Swearer Center for Service at Brown University and the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute (ACI), founded in 1992 by a group of women from Brown interested in working in the Women's Division of the ACI. Since that time, the program has offered theater, dance/movement, creative writing, and visual arts workshops to female inmates of the medium and minimum security facilities, and expanded, in 2003, to include writing workshops in the Men's Division. In both Men's and Women's programs, Brown students and inmates explore the arts as a medium for expression, enjoyment, and personal reflection. Teams of volunteers conduct evening workshops in creative writing, movement, and theater. The program, like others at the Swearer Center, is coordinated by undergraduate students, who support a team of student volunteers.

SPACE works to engender a supportive environment where inmates can explore their creative abilities and personal voice. In teams of two or three, Brown students design and lead weekly workshops, emphasizing participation, performance, play, collaboration, reflection, skill-building and creative expression within a safe and constructive space. Workshop participants explore prose, poetry, essays, and other genres, and experiment with dance, music, drawing, theater games, and improvisation. SPACE produces a journal of inmates' work and students' reflections, and a performance event each spring.

In addition to their workshops within the prison, SPACE volunteers meet weekly to discuss their work and to participate in on-going trainings regarding issues affecting incarcerated men and women. Participants utilize these meetings to address logistic concerns, but also to share ideas, often inviting area artists and educators into conversations and hands on work with a variety of media.

Most recently, SPACE Outside was developed to provide opportunities for students to work with ex-offenders to explore the arts as a medium for expression and reflection in community settings. Informed by the rationale that ex-offenders are also in need of safe spaces in which to reflect upon changes in their lives, SPACE Outside has partnered with existing community agencies working with re-entering ex-offenders.

Coordinators of all three SPACE programs meet weekly with full time staff of the Swearer Center for Public Service as part of the Center's model of utilizing learning communities to further student coordinators' understandings of what it means to do service. Staff and coordinators jointly plan conversations - utilizing readings, reflections and ongoing issues to shape the learning community's trajectory through the academic year. Depending on students' particular areas of interest, these conversations span topics that include health care in prison, prison abolition, writing and "for credit" adult education, voting rights for ex-offenders and impacts of violence on learning.

Measuring the impact of the program is more art than science. For some inmate participants, the workshops represent a welcome release from the day-to-day routine of life in prison. For others, the making of art and prose comprise a small part of a general process of learning, reflecting and carrying on under difficult circumstances.

SPACE makes no claims to help or hinder the 'rehabilitation' process, but does commit itself to being present to the needs and strengths of those inmates and ex-offenders with whom it works. The transformative effect of the work on undergraduates - both their creative practice and hands-on work with communities - informs choices they make and is evidenced in further study and employment directions they pursue after leaving the university.

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