As I near the end of my work with the Criminal Justice Resource Center, I’m not often taken aback by any of the reentry programming I read about in my research. I’ve come to expect the usual suspects: housing, employment, and healthcare. Every once in a while, I’ll read about a gender-specific program or an innovative mental health initiative, but for the most part, reentry councils across the east coast are doing mostly the same things in different ways.
Yesterday, however, I encountered programming that made me stop, think, and recognize an implicit belief of my own that I needed to grapple with. While reading through the website for The Fortune Society, a New York organization that serves incarcerated individuals in Queens, Long Island, and Harlem, I came across their “Creative Arts” services. My initial instinct was to skip past this tab and move on to more “productive” and “realistic” services, like education or benefits access.
After that initial thought, I stopped myself and began to reflect. Why did I not deem creative expression as valuable as other forms of education? Why did inclusion of arts into reentry not seem realistic to me? Why was my mind stuck on productivity instead of humanity?
Once a person is convicted of a crime, we begin to treat their lives as disposable, as less worthy than others. Prisons and jails contribute to this pervasive mindset, as they remove “criminals” from our view, “othering” them and preventing us from seeing ourselves in them. After suffering the trauma and isolation of incarceration, justice-involved individuals are expected to simply jump back into our communities and immediately become a “productive member of society.” They are treated not as human beings with separate passions and hopes, but as working bodies to be exploited.
Including creative arts in reentry programming, as well as for low-income individuals generally, fights this narrative. Even though I am not an artistic person, I know how empowering and healing something as simple as journaling or singing can be. The arts allow individuals to explore their creativity and unique perspective; for a population dehumanized and stifled by the criminal justice system, creative arts are even more important.
If we want and expect justice-involved individuals to reenter society, we must treat them with grace and humanity. Just as it shouldn’t be a privilege to have steady employment or a house or access to education, it shouldn’t be a privilege to have a meaningful creative outlet or an avenue for self-expression. I am disappointed in myself that my first response to creative arts in reentry programming was to dismiss the concept, but I am grateful that I was able to identify this reaction and move past it.