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At the California Institution for Men, Dancing Frees Inmates

In California, after a funding drought in the 2000s, arts programs in prisons have been expanding since 2013, with programs in all state facilities since 2017. The trend is part of a nationwide effort to turn away from retribution toward rehabilitation, sometimes through the arts. One example that has succeeded despite conflicting with prison norms about masculinity is Embodied Narrative Healing at the California Institution for Men, a class in dance that a New York Times reporter describes after attending the classes at the Chino, Calif., prison and at another in Lancaster over nearly three years. “Dance has a sense of liberation and agency,” said Amie Dowling, a choreographer and professor at the University of San Francisco with more than 20 years of experience working in prisons. This can be threatening to “systems of control and containment, like prisons,” she said. But the men in Chino did indeed take to dance, which suggests a shift in ideas about which opportunities should be offered to people in prison.

In 2018, Kenneth W. Webb and Dimitri Gale were living in Yard A, the Progressive Programming Facility, where prisoners in the maximum security section earn admission through good conduct and gain access to rehabilitative classes. Gales was trying to teach a friend a dance called the Reject when he got the idea to start a class. He convinced Webb to join him and the two wrote a proposal emphasizing dance as rehabilitation. The proposal was approved and they taught the class themselves, working out routines to hip-hop and R&B tracks for about 20 other inmates. “We were going against a whole culture that defines dance as weak, like that’s not what men do,” Gales said. “People think we’re thugs, but it’s like ‘No, bro, I’m really a regular person, and this is what I like doing.’” Words Uncaged, an organization founded in 2015 by an English professor at California State University, Los Angeles borrows techniques from narrative therapy (helping participants reflect critically on their life stories) and applies them to the aims of restorative justice (repairing harm) in several Southern California prisons. The program branched into dance when Gales and Webb asked it for a teacher. In 2021, a report by California Arts in Corrections showed how such programs help participants learn coping skills and heal from trauma, reduce anxiety and anger, form communities within the isolation of incarceration, and reintegrate with their communities on the outside after-release. Brant Choate, the director of rehabilitative programs for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that while “there is no special sauce for keeping people out of prison,” art programs “create a neutral zone” in places where people are usually divided by race or gang affiliation. And in that neutral zone, Choate said, they can change.


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