CNN  — 

In photographer Peter Merts’ images of California’s Arts in Corrections program, a smiling man is pictured with an acrylic portrait of Pope Francis. It is a fitting choice of subject in a photo series that explores rehabilitation and redemption in America’s prison system.

Even before the California Institution for Men established an arts program, the 54-year-old, who is not named in Merts’ new book, had begun teaching himself to paint using only the few books and supplies that he had access to. When the prison piloted an arts class, he signed up.

One of phogographer Peter Merts' subjects with an acrylic painting of Pope Francis in 2016. The man was released from prison three years later and now owns a property where he builds micro-homes for homeless people and those who have been released from prison.

His skills progressed to the point where he became an “inside facilitator,” helping the instructors deliver classes and mentoring fellow students. After serving time for murder, he was released from prison and immediately hired by the same teaching program he had assisted. He still creates art and teaches painting to anyone interested.

The man is one of many subjects featured in Merts’ book, “Ex Crucible: The Passion of Incarcerated Artists,” which showcases people participating in prison arts programs spanning creative disciplines including music, writing, visual arts, dance and theater. Merts conceived the project in early 2021 but he has been documenting these programs for 15 years.

Across dozens of photographs, he offers an emotional portrayal of an often-vilified population. In some images, Merts focuses on an individual artist’s facial expressions as they contort their features during theater classes or engross themselves in a music lesson. Sometimes, close-up portraits don’t feature any artworks at all, but rather focus on a single person’s face against a white or gray background.

Other times, the photos center on the art itself, capturing intricate origami models, dynamic acrylic paintings and careful pencil sketches. However, the artist’s hands are always present in these images, drawing the viewer closer to the creative process as subjects play piano, position their fingers on guitar strings or thumb through art textbooks.

A student plays the piano during a songwriting class at the California Correctional Institution.

Merts said that when he began the project, he wanted to be an objective observer.

“I initially wanted to be unengaged, a fly on the wall, just because it was remarkable to me,” he said in a video call. “But now I follow the emotional energy in the room. When someone is excited, I go there — when someone is confused, I go there. You can really see the courage and the passion in the people.”

“We all get nervous about self-revealing,” Merts added. “But the artists begin to see that they can open up and investigate themselves and their lives. And when they do, they become very authentic.”

The photographer said art helps people lay bare who they are, adding that he is fascinated by observing which subjects the incarcerated artists are drawn to. “Sometimes it’s family, and they draw portraits,” he said. “Sometimes it’s their culture or heritage, and their paintings contain cultural iconography.”

A view from the art studio at San Quentin State Prison.

Merts’ favorite reactions to his work are from people who say it has radically changed the way they think about those who are incarcerated.

“By showing humanity and authenticity, originality and personality you create empathy,” he said. “I hope that what’s happening here is a path where we can advocate for victims without stripping the perpetrator’s humanity.”

Enriching lives

Prison arts programs, like the ones portrayed in Merts’ work, have the power to dramatically enhance the quality of life for those inside correctional facilities, according to Larry Brewster, a professor emeritus at the University of San Francisco who specializes in public policy.

Ten years ago, he and Merts collaborated on a different book, “Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons,” which combined the latter’s photography with prisoner interviews.

Merts and Brewster say that, on a policy level, the lives of incarcerated people are often dismissed or deprioritized in favor of focusing on recidivism rates. But, they argue, a supportive prison environment can have positive outcomes on people’s lives once they leave the system.

Brewster spent decades analyzing the effect of offering art initiatives in prisons and noted a number of benefits to participants.

“What I found to be statistically significant, quantitatively, were better time management skills, greater emotional control and self-confidence, and an increase in motivation to pursue other educational and vocational programs,” he said.

In a theater class at Ironwood State Prison, students perform in the commedia dell'arte style, which was popular through Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries.

According to the California Arts Council, the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation invests $8 million per year in its prison arts program. Nine years ago, it was investing only $2.5 million annually. Experts argue that funding and political backing for prison education programs is critical to people’s rehabilitation — and this isn’t limited to visual arts.

A 2021 study published by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences examined the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers college degrees in a variety of liberal arts to incarcerated individuals in six New York state correctional facilities. Researchers found that participants had a significantly lower recidivism rate than the general prison population, with those gaining a degree through the program less than half as likely to reoffend (and those who obtained a full Bachelor of Arts degree almost seven times less likely to do so).

Students perform and theater exercise at Solano State Prison.

Brewster said that his sample size has been too small to make similar statements about recidivism in California’s prison arts programs specifically. But he has found that participation results in significantly fewer disciplinary infractions within prison.

“People say to me how much safer they feel in the classrooms than when they’re in the yard,” Brewster said.

Merts, meanwhile, has heard incarcerated people refer to the arts classrooms as “sanctuaries.”

According to a 2016 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average person in state prison only has a 10th-grade education. Incarceration is inextricably tied to systems of poverty that disproportionately affect people of color, especially Black communities in the United States. Advocates of prison education programs believe they can help to address that systemic neglect by offering opportunities for socioeconomic mobility after release.