August 3, 2016

A prison program that empowers inmates to create and sell their art

Hawaii's Project CARE gives incarcerated women the confidence and financial support to successfully reenter their communities

A CARE Project artist works on the craft of quilling. Artwork produced by the women in the program is sold online through the nonprofit WorkNet. Photo courtesy of WorkNet

Inside a classroom in Kailua, Hawaii, you can hear a pin drop. A group of women are intensely curling, bending, and crimping colorful strips of paper, part of a paper art form called quilling. They are using these techniques to create beautiful greeting cards, signs, and jewelry that they will sell online and market to local galleries.

What makes this project special are the artists themselves, prisoners from the Women’s Community Correctional Center, the only women’s prison in Hawaii.

The project, called the Correctional Arts Reentry, or CARE, is a social enterprise initiative and the brainchild of an innovative nonprofit called WorkNet, which was founded in 2000 in Honolulu. WorkNet prepares offenders for a successful reentry back into their communities with services that include cognitive skills training to address criminal thinking, job and housing placement, and help in restoring identity documents so they can work.

Over the years of working in Hawaii’s prisons, we discovered that there are so many talented artists in our prisons. We began thinking of ways we could help these artists sell their work so they could save money for their reentry into the community. This gave birth to the CARE Project.

I helped to pilot the program in December 2014 with help from community artists, who themselves were ex-offenders. We partnered with a local gallery that provided space for the artists to showcase their work during the Christmas season. The event was financially successful and taught the artists how to display their art work, engage with customers about their art, and handle financial transactions. One of the artists, Mo Kalaikai, is now employed as WorkNet’s resident artist. Mo illustrates the Agency’s cognitive skills curriculum and inmate case studies, draws designs for the women at WCCC to use in their quilling projects, and assists with other artistic special projects.

We use art as a vehicle to break down people’s stereotypes and biases towards prisoners.

The lesson learned from that event was that people were able to get beyond biases they have toward ex-offenders and a “throw away the key” mentality. When they talked to the artist, they saw a talented human being who is contributing to the community through their art, not an ex-offender. We use art as a vehicle to break down people’s stereotypes and biases towards prisoners.

Fast-forward to today, the CARE Project was able to secure funding to launch a pilot project in January 2016 inside the women’s prison. CARE provides these women a vehicle to earn and save money for their reentry to the community by selling their artwork. Once they leave prison, we continue to work with them to help them find a job, secure housing, and help them with other reentry needs. If they want to continue selling art products, we will help them set up their business or they can continue working with us to represent them through our marketing efforts.

On some days you can hear the proverbial pin drop and on others, laughter and storytelling. The students tell us that the CARE class provides them with a safe outlet to express their creativity and experience a feeling of bonding with the other women in the class. They also feel supported by the community when people by their handmade art products.

The women are now learning how to crochet and are making hats, scarves, baby blankets, and more for sale. One of the inmates who is a crochet expert has been approved to teach the women in the CARE class how to crochet. She loves giving back to the women by being able to teach them her craft. One of the participants learned how to make scarves and gloves for her children. Her husband will buy the items from our website so that he can tell the kids, “mommy made this for you.”

The CARE Project has become more than a way for these women to earn money. Expressing that they feel safe, that they belong, and that they feel valued is priceless.

Ruby Menon

Program director for CARE Project

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