Inmates in Valley State Prison learn traditional arts for therapy

Valley State Prison inmates learn arts for therapy

Valley State Prison inmates learn traditional arts as a form of therapy at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif., on Wednesday, April 19, 2017.
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Valley State Prison inmates learn traditional arts as a form of therapy at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif., on Wednesday, April 19, 2017.

Once a week, inmates at Valley State Prison who typically might not interact come together to make Native American jewelry from thousands of tiny beads that come in all colors.

They work from patterns on homemade looms to make all sorts of designs – NFL logos, cartoon characters, names of family members and traditional designs. Once their patterns are finished, they sew them onto leather

“It gives us a way out for a little while,” said Justin Henson, 28, from Fresno. “It’s something that you’re proud of that you can ship to your family.”

On Wednesday, Henson worked on a blue and white Dallas Cowboys bracelet to send to his dad. The new bracelet matched a necklace he sent in the past.

The program is run by Dale and Julie Tex, from Fresno. Both are Mono Indians. Dale grew up in North Fork and Julie in Dunlap.

Dale learned the Native American art from his grandmother and aunt and began doing his own bead work at 9 years old. He’s done bead work for more than 50 years now. But, it’s an art anyone can do, he said.

“Some of the inmates outsew me,” he joked.

The program is possible through a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Arts Council. Valley State Prison contracts with the Fresno Arts Council and the Alliance for California Traditional Arts for the beading class, a mural class, an African drumming class and more.

Valley State Prison is a medium security prison and currently houses about 3,400 inmates.

The Art in Corrections programs, reintroduced to the California prison system in 2013, are another way for prisons to help inmates with rehabilitation, said Krissi Khokhobashvili, a spokeswoman with CDCR.

“I’m a recovering alcoholic,” Dale Tex said. “The people in here made mistakes. We both use it for rehabilitation. It helps us have patience. It’s how I keep busy.”

Since the Arts in Corrections pilot program, CDCR has increased its budget each year. This year, the program is expanding to all 35 facilities statewide. Next year, the program’s budget is expected to reach $8 million, Khokhobashvili said.

“These inmates have to be on good behavior to get into the class. And, they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize class,” she said. “At the same time, they’re learning skills, life skills. You have to have patience if you’re working with thousands of tiny little beads.”

At Valley State Prison, professional artists like Dale and Julie Tex run classes nearly all day Monday through Friday.

“We come with an open heart and open mind to provide friendship,” Julie Tex said.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce prison populations and AB 109 was passed, CDCR has renewed its focus on rehabilitation, said Lt. Ron Ladd, a public information officer at Valley State Prison.

“Rehabilitation has really gone full throttle in the last couple of years,” he said.

For the inmates, the art classes provide therapy and a positive outlet for expression they can turn back on when they return to civilian life.

“It’s good to make sure you do positive things so you don’t get caught up in all the drama,” said 23-year-old Leroy Ryan. “Positive things will keep you occupied once you get out.”

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477