Last week, I was pleased and moved to join artists from across the country, formerly incarcerated individuals, leading advocates and senior government officials at the White House to celebrate the role of innovation and the arts in promoting criminal justice reform and improving reentry outcomes. The event, “Innovation & the Arts: Prison Reform & Reentry in the 21st Century,” was part of a continuing series of events held by this Administration to push for a more equitable and effective criminal justice system.
With over two million individuals behind bars in the U.S., the vast majority of whom will ultimately be released and return to their communities, it is critical that we do more to prioritize programs that foster successful reentry for incarcerated people, their families and their communities. This issue is a major focus of the Administration. Earlier this year, the President met with prisoners at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma and visited a halfway house in New Jersey where he sat down with formerly incarcerated individuals to hear their stories and announced new and ongoing federal initiatives to aid reentry and rehabilitation efforts, including the Administration’s commitment to “banning the box” for most federal employment positions and establishing a National Clean Slate Clearinghouse to build capacity among local legal aid programs, public defender offices, and reentry service providers. During his trip to New Jersey, the President reflected in personal terms on the importance of reentry support: “There are people who have gone through tough times, they’ve made mistakes, but with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path.”
The event this week featured remarks from Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and various supporters of arts-based reentry programs. Attorney General Lynch emphasized that while the importance of job training and educational opportunities for incarcerated people cannot be overstated, the arts also serve a fundamental need – as a creative outlet and form of self-expression, providing opportunities for collaboration, emotional growth, and talent exploration. Tim Robbins and Sabra Williams, actors and founders of The Actors’ Gang Prison Project, also discussed how the arts foster empathy and affirm humanity. They pointed to a growing body of encouraging results about the concrete impact of these programs, which have been shown to enhance trust among the inmates, reduce the number of disciplinary infractions, and improve outcomes following release.
After an evening of inspiring performances by youth poets, West African drummers and classically trained musicians who offer workshops inside youth and adult detention facilities, members of the audience – including Members of Congress, federal and state wardens, formerly incarcerated individuals, artists, reentry service providers and pioneers of criminal justice reform – discussed ways to reach the common goal of better preparing incarcerated individuals for release. Panels moderated by Terrence Jenkins, former host of E! News, and Piper Kerman, creator of Orange is the New Black, also helped to ensure that the conversation included the voices and perspectives of formerly incarcerated populations and correctional officers.
The event coincided with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act - Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program 2015 National Conference, a week-long convening in Washington, D.C. with around 1,500 researchers, policymakers and practitioners focused on improving reentry outcomes and building a justice system that better serves all Americans.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. is Deputy Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity in the Domestic Policy Council.