Janessa Johnsrude demonstrated expansion and contraction in drama Monday by asking her students to describe an object that was meaningful to them. For Ramiro Rivas, that object was a shiny debit card.
Rivas said he received this debit card from his mother when he graduated from school. Using his hands to speak, he said he bought a watch, gloves, a hat, shoes — a whole new wardrobe. When his instructor asked Rivas what his graduation meant to his mother and then to him, his answer was simple: “Everything.”
Outside Johnsrude’s class, Rivas and his classmates are inmates of Pelican Bay State Prison’s minimum security facility. But inside her class, brought to Pelican Bay through the Arts-in-Corrections program, the inmates say they’re treated as individuals.
“It’s one of the places we come where we actually get called by our first names,” said Christopher Tomas, a Redding man who has been in prison since December 2015. “I appreciate that.”
Although they won’t be able to leave the prison, photographs of the antics Tomas, Rivas, Ivan Oviedo and Joshua Mitchell get up to in Johnsrude’s class will be on display at the Del Norte County Courthouse through the Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness’s Art in Public Places program starting April 26.
The show, Art From the Inside IV, will also feature drawings and paintings from Julie McNiel’s visual arts class and a page or two from Cecilia Holland’s creative writing class. There will also be photographs from Dale Morgan’s guitar class, said DNACA executive director Stephanie Wenning.
“We can share out, not only the artwork they’re creating, but the inside view of the classrooms that they have where they’re creating it,” Wenning said.
The Arts-in-Corrections program is funded by the California Arts Councilors. Founded by the William James Association, the program brings professional artists into the prison to teach their craft to those who are incarcerated.
Janessa Johnsrude and her colleague Zuzka Sabata, founders of Dell’Arte International’s Prison Project, began teaching in the minimum security yard at Pelican Bay in March 2016. Today the two faculty members of the Blue Lake-based school of physical theater teach inmates at all security levels within the prison, Johnsrude said.
“It’s such an intense environment,” she said. “The study of theater is about humans connecting and I feel like they get connection. They get connections with each other, with me, with the material; it offers self revelation in a way.”
Johnsrude said the number of students who show up to her class in the minimum security facility varies, but there’s been a steady stream of people coming through. Sometimes students who have been attending her classes bring their friends. Others hear rumors and simply show up, she said.
“Sometimes people come for a day, sometimes people come for two years,” Johnsrude said.
Oviedo came to Johnsrude’s drama class when it was brand new. Since then, he’s attended every single class and has arrived on time.
Oviedo, who is at Pelican Bay State Prison for assault with a firearm, said he grew up in Long Beach where he “knew nothing but gang members.” As a minor, he said he has been in and out of juvenile hall and juvenile camps before winding up at the prison. Oviedo said he will leave Pelican Bay on April 28.
“I’ve been incarcerated since I was 18; I’m 23 now,” he said. “I had a lot of time to think and I started realizing that it ain’t worth it, all the stuff I was doing out there. This class made me realize more things than all the things I used to do out there.”
Mitchell, who’s from Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, said he has already served time in the state prisons at Delano and Soledad. At Pelican Bay, Mitchell said he was initially in the prison’s D Yard before being sent to the minimum security facility. He said he’s currently taking vocational classes for custodial maintenance.
“(It has) changed my life and changed my thinking first so when I get out I could do something different and become a productive member of society,” Mitchell said. “By coming to these groups here, I earn credit.”
When asked why they keep coming back, Oviedo said it gives them an opportunity to “act like a fool.”
“We can’t do that in the dorm because they’d look at us weird,” he said.
Mitchell, who has taken the drama class three times, said he likes learning something new. He also appreciates learning how to develop different characters and how to interact with his fellow actors.
“It helps people take off their masks,” he said. “For two hours-three hours we get to be ourselves and come to a common ground where we leave all the crazy stuff alone and we just have fun.”
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org .