Inmate Artists Won’t Be Brushed Off

Times Staff Writer

In the sprawling tableau of the California budget crisis, it is a small but telling detail: The painting classes at Los Angeles County’s maximum-security state prison are no longer taught by professional artists, but by two burly convicts serving hard time for second-degree murder.

The art teachers who once instructed inmates at the state prison in Lancaster were sent packing in January, when the state quietly dismantled most of its Arts in Corrections program. Since then, students Mitch Smiley and Cole Bienek have stepped in, teaching what they can to a few dozen fellow inmates.

Both have spent a lot of time painting in the TV glare of the prison system’s day rooms, and both now live on Lancaster’s “honor yard,” which bestows special privileges on the best-behaved inmates. Prison officials are letting them run the classes for a few hours a week, as long as they don’t run out of supplies -- many of which were paid for with Arts in Corrections funds.


But now Smiley and Bienek are worried that they, too, could essentially be laid off.

“There’s a lot of guys who want to keep this open, and the administration has let us keep it open so far,” said Smiley, 42.

“The benefits of this far outweigh any savings they would get if they cut it,” Bienek added.

Like countless other Californians, inmates and prison officials in Lancaster are trying to figure out how to make do with less as politicians in Sacramento try to close a $38-billion budget shortfall.

Smiley and Bienek are hoping to gain the warden’s approval to hold pizza sales on the exercise yard to raise funds for the art program. Lynn Harrison, the prison’s community resources manager, is considering recruiting volunteer art teachers. And this weekend, they are all hoping to raise a record amount of cash with the prison’s sixth annual -- and, perhaps, final -- inmate art auction.

“It might be enough to keep us afloat, not formally, but at least in an informal way, with just the materials,” Harrison said.

Though most of the proceeds from the auction will go to a charity for abused children, the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley, a fraction will go toward the purchase of new brushes, paint and other equipment for Lancaster’s art room. And this year, prison officials are hoping a change of venue will bring more customers.

Traditionally, the auction has been held in the Antelope Valley, raising a respectable $5,000 or so annually. This year’s event will take place today and Sunday at St. James’ School in Los Angeles’ mid-Wilshire district. Organizers believe the new location may be more convenient for some of the artists’ families, not to mention a more urbane crowd that may be intrigued by the notion of “outsider art.”

Most of the works going on the block had already been packed away when a reporter visited Lancaster earlier this week. But collectors looking to Smiley and Bienek for rough-hewn folk styles or street-style images of life behind bars will be disappointed.

Smiley -- a broad, loping man who counts tattooing among his first art experiences -- favors the Impressionists and other figurative painters, and has grown especially interested in sacred images from Orthodox Christian icons. Bienek is fond of California landscape painters.

“To us in here, that typical prison art is old hack,” Bienek said during a tour of Lancaster’s art room. “After 15 years in prison, the last thing I wanna paint is guard towers and skulls.”

Smiley, who was touching up an Orthodox-style image of Jesus, chimed in with what has apparently become a manifesto: “No prison art!”

Systemwide, the cuts in the art education program will save the state $3.6 million during the next 2 1/2 years, Corrections Department spokesman Bob Martinez said.

It is only a preview of a deeper round of cuts planned for November, when the state plans to lay off 318 positions in the prison education program, about 20% of the staff.

At Lancaster, 38 of the institution’s 83 teachers have already received layoff notices. Their departure will limit opportunities for prisoners to learn vocational trades from masonry to landscaping to air conditioning repair.

As a result, Warden Mike Yarborough estimates that 1,000 of the lockup’s 4,400 inmates will lose crucial educational and vocational training.

Steve Arriola, a vocational graphic arts teacher slated for layoff in November, said those inmates will have a harder time persuading the parole board that they are on the right track, because the board views participation in such programs as evidence of an honest effort toward rehabilitation.

The cuts have not affected the work-study program pursued by Michael Simon, a 33-year-old third-striker doing time for burglary.

But Simon, who earns less than $1 an hour in the prison laundry, is worried that the budget crisis will jeopardize his efforts to obtain a $475 state subsidy for the final stages of certification as a commercial laundry technician, which he has been working toward for three years.

“That’s three years down the drain,” said Simon, who hopes to go to work for a big hotel when he makes parole. “What’s the point of rehabilitating myself if the golden egg ain’t gonna be in the basket?”

If the art room is shut down, Smiley and Bienek said they will both continue painting in their cells, using their own materials. But both would like to see the structured classes continue.

Of his recent work, Smiley seems proudest of the crucifix he painted for the prison chapel. His Orthodox-inspired image of Christ is crisscrossed with tortured muscles, but the face is placid, with shuttered eyes that could almost be dreaming.

“When you’re painting, you’re not here,” Smiley said. “You’re in your own world, you know?”


The inmate art sale takes place today and Sunday at St. James’ School, 625 S. Saint Andrews Place, Los Angeles. The live auction takes place from 5 to 8 p.m. today, and art sales will continue from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.