Tapped out

A prison arts program searches for a dance partner

Some six months ago, the inmates confined inside the Carswell federal prison in south Fort Worth got a rare glimmer of hope when they were presented with a unique proposition: If an artist could come to the prison and teach them, they were asked, what type of artist-teacher would they want?

The inmates, all them female and many in jail because of drug addiction, were elated to hear the news that their prison had been one of just three in the country to be selected for the 1999-2000 "artist in residence" program. Jointly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Justice, the project is designed, in part, to give inmates an opportunity to tap into their creative sides.

The women could have chosen to study anything from pottery to poems and painting, but these women wanted to dance. And so it was agreed: A collaboration of artists, prison officials, and government representatives would select a dancer who would use a $21,000 federal grant to set up a studio inside the prison, where the teacher would spend 40 hours a week performing and teaching modern dance.

What would be taught and how it would be taught would be left entirely up to the selected teacher, who before beginning the program would be flown to California and trained in how to teach in a prison setting.

In the arts world, most dancers would leap at the chance to win an NEA grant. Unfortunately for the Carswell women, the prospect of getting paid to prance behind bars is evidently too daunting for even the most cash-poor performers in Dallas and Fort Worth. After more than six months of searching, the program's organizers can't find anyone interested in taking on the job, and they may soon be forced to scrap the project.

A combination of factors, including bad advertising and, more important, the intimidating images of prison life, are conspiring to prevent the program from getting off the ground, says Wayne Cook, a spokesman for the William James Association, a California-based nonprofit organization that is coordinating the program on behalf of the NEA and Justice Department.

"When we put information out about this position, we didn't mention that [Carswell] is a women's facility," Cook says. "I think the idea that it may have been male inmates doing the dancing was a little intimidating."

Although Cook is still hoping to find a dancer who is willing to accept the $21,000, the dilemma may soon force him to slice the grant in half in an attempt to attract different types of artists to work inside Carswell on a part-time basis. That scenario would be a vast disappointment to the Carswell women, says Terry Barnhard, the prison's education director.

"You have a lot of inmates who have talent," Barnhard says. "Some of them have never done anything along the lines of dance, [so] it gives them a chance to let some of their creative mechanisms out."

The "artist in residence" program has been in operation inside jails and prisons across the country since the mid-1970s, but Cook says this is the first time the program has been available in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. While the NEA and the U.S. Department of Justice may seem like odd partners, Cook says the program serves the interests of both agencies: It brings stability to the prison system while it gives artists a chance to pursue their work in a new environment.

The lack of interest in the Carswell program is frustrating, but Cook says it's not uncommon for artists to be skeptical about spending a year behind bars, interacting with people who have been convicted of serious and often violent crimes.

"If you haven't done this kind of work before, your worst images come up when you think about it," Cook says. "I tell artists, if you want to get a sense about working with inmates, think about the most motivated class you've had, then double that. Inmates just eat up the arts."

Cook, who served as a visual-arts resident inside the notoriously rough Folsom state prison in California, says that while the job at first appears fraught with dangers, the response from the prisoners who participate in it is typically "overwhelming." Once their creative minds have been opened, the prisoners become remarkably loyal to their teachers. "They protect the classes," Cook says, because "they know that nothing can go down [or] otherwise they'll lose the class."

The prison atmosphere is what made one candidate who was ideal for the job decide to reject an offer to take over the project earlier this year, Barnhard says. The woman was turned off after having to go through the background checks and finger-printing process the prison requires of all people granted access to the facility.

Though that process is intimidating, Barnhard agrees that the program has a positive effect on inmates -- making life on the inside easier for guards and inmates alike.

"We try to change people's lives. We provide mechanisms for them to improve their spiritual psychology. This helps us as a management tool to keep them active and busy," Barnhard says.

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