Prisoners spent two months creating this painting, which hangs in the office of the Center for Adoption Support and Education in Burtonsville, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Just a Kid

I’m just a kid, speaking

his heart for those who

like to listen. I’m just

a hoodlum, causing trouble

For two months a dozen inmates created a mural for the Center for Adoption Support and Education, a nonprofit headquartered in Burtonsville. (Rosanne Skirble /For The Washington Post)

wherever I go. I’m just

a scared little boy, crying

out for help,

I’m just me.


from “Something Else Within:

An Anthology of Poetry

From Project Youth ArtReach”

D.M. was a teen at a Montgomery County detention center when he signed up for a poetry workshop. His teacher, Bulgarian poet Lyubomir Nikolov, remembers him as a “suspicious kid” among youths arrested on charges that included gang violence, assault, theft and drug-related offenses. Nikolov, who has taught poetry in the county jail and detention centers for more than a decade, uses the lyrical language and imagery of his homeland as a way to reach the teens and unlock their creative voices.

D.M.’s poem is one example of the results of Nikolov’s work.

“It’s hard for them to open their hearts and speak about their own lives. It’s a tough thing to do, believe me,” Nikolov said. “D.M. slowly adopted my tricks: to use simple words, short sentences and honesty.”

Since 2000, Project Youth ArtReach has been bringing artists, poets, storytellers, dancers and drummers to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility and youth detention centers. From June 2015 to June 2016, the group held 339 workshops and 24 performances by visiting artists, reaching about 3,250 detainees. This month,Project Youth ArtReach is hosting eight ongoing workshops in visual, literary and performing arts at four institutions, for about 100 people at each site.

The project is a core program of Artivate, a Silver Spring nonprofit group that receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, plus state and local agencies.

“The goal is to offer participants an opportunity to learn about art, reflect on their lives in a safe space, cultivate new skills and experience success,” said Claire Schwadron, Project Youth ArtReach director. “The arts programs offer a reminder of what makes us human, what connects us. Practically speaking, staff feels the youth are learning and engaged, and usually the workshops reduce stress and provide some calm moments.”

That perception is backed by research. In 2014, the National Endowment for the Arts sponsored the Prison Arts Resource Project, an annotated bibliography of 48 studies from across the United States that concluded that art programs in correctional facilities are worth the investment of time and money. Among the benefits: decreased violence, reduced racial tension, bolstered self-esteem and lowered recidivism.

“The arts encourage a freedom of expression that’s normally not allowed within prison culture; they help inmates tap into emotions they normally can’t access or process, and they also help break down barriers and build positive relationships among inmates,” said Beth Bienvenu, NEA accessibility director.

Schwadron helped jump-start that cultural change in 2004, when she persuaded Warden Robert Green, now director of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, to host Le Vent du Nord, a French Canadian folk group. They came with fiddles and guitars and instruments that included spoons, bones, jaw harps and a hurdy-gurdy. The show was an overwhelming success, Schwadron said, ending with a standing ovation and a dance-off between a band member and an inmate.

Project Youth ArtReach has grown to incorporate local and touring artists from Ghana, Greece, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, the Lakota Sioux Nation and South Africa. They run eight- to 10-week sessions in painting, drumming, storytelling, ceramics and poetry.

Among them are visual artists Peter Krsko of Slovakia and Alicia Cosnahan of Belgium. The pair team-teach mural workshops. For two months in the spring they worked with a dozen inmates on the Women’s Therapeutic Program Unit to create a large painting for the Center for Adoption Support and Education, a nonprofit group based in Burtonsville, Md.

Center director Debbie Riley and senior marketing manager Melisa Rogers met the inmates, who listened attentively as they described the center and its mission. Riley and Rogers then watched the artists in action. Using an overhead projector, the inmates traced images of an imagined utopia with daffodils, a blazing sun and a dove carrying an inspirational message to prayerful hands.

Back in their studio in the District, Krsko and Cosnahan turned those drawings into stencils that the women then arranged on two 4-by-8-foot aluminum panels. For security reasons, the jail prohibits bringing in most art supplies, so Krsko and Cosnahan had to get creative with their materials. They settled on sponges dabbed into paint to color in the stencils, working layer after layer to create a composite image.

The bird in flight on the panel carries the Center for Adoption Support and Education’s motto: Nurture, inspire, empower.

“This is what we strive to do as an organization, and that’s what the women here today have done,” Riley said. “I know that many of them have themselves grown up in foster care or have had to relinquish children, and so to be able to create something that is so positive and heartfelt is really an incredible experience.”

For the inmates, the work is also about giving back.

“It gives me a glimmer of hope that people who see this will know that someone cared about them,” said an incarcerated mother of two whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons. Another, who turned 69 in jail, had worked for the Prince George’s County public schools for 32 years before her arrest last year. The former teacher welcomes what she calls “stress-free moments” to channel her emotions. “It helps me keep my strength and carry on through this journey, because it is very hard, very difficult.

“We want people to know that we’re not just sitting here whittling away, wasting our time,” she said. “We are ladies. We still have minds. We feel and we have heart.”

In another wing of the jail, men ages 18 to 21 are housed in the Youthful Offender Unit: Choices for Change Program. They’ve completed a six-foot square mural they call “Nature of Conflict,” which includes a Bob Marley look-alike and a woman with blue garlands in her hair. The two are shown back-to-back, as a raging lion and a pair of doves tower above.

“There’s hostility, but this shows that you can rise above that. We can deal with it and start a new page,” one youth offender said to Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County staff members gathered to receive the mural.

Krsko and Cosnahan have watched this transformation many times as artists-in-residence at the jail and in other detention centers.

“By bringing art into lives of these people, maybe we can teach them something new, and then they can take ownership over their own lives and neighborhoods,” Krsko said.

Since the Le Vent du Nord performance in 2004, Green has been a believer in the arts as a force for change and a gateway to a GED and other skills that will help the more than 65 percent of the inmate population who are most likely to return home and not go on to long prison terms.

“One of the worst things to manage in any correctional facility in the country is violence,” Green said. “And when people are idle and have nothing to do, violence erupts. The arts become a great equalizer in that.”

Lyubomir Nikolov agrees. He believes that poetry has the power to change lives. That’s why the naturalized U.S. citizen keeps coming back to teach. His secret: “If you love those kids, they will repay you with the same. They are incredible human beings, and you just have to gently guide them to miracles,” he said.