Community Works in-custody programs address exigent public health crises of incarceration that are gravely exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. These vital programs must be supported and permitted to continue within the San Francisco County jails, especially during this global public health crisis.
Due to the grave public health threat posed by COVID-19, there is considerable pressure on officials around the country to reduce incarceration rates and implement rapid re-entry plans. Compassionate release is the best way to protect ill or elderly incarcerated people from becoming heart-wrenching pandemic statistics. But for those left inside who do not meet the criteria for release, in-custody programming and services are a crucial lifeline right now.
Locking people in jails and prisons can destroy family connections, causing generational trauma and perpetuating cycles of violence. Shelter-in-place orders have put domestic violence victims at an increased risk, forcing them into isolation under the intense compounded stressors of staying healthy and navigating unprecedented economic uncertainty. The devastating spread of COVID-19 within carceral facilities has given jails and prisons the leeway to restrict programming and visitation, which are already under constant threat of suspension and elimination. These restrictions interrupt programming that is critical to the support and rehabilitation of incarcerated community members.
Resolve To Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) is a Community Works program that provides anti-violence education for violent offenders incarcerated in the San Francisco County jail. Founded in 1997 in partnership with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, RSVP has documented 82% lower rearrests for violent crimes during the first year after release compared to the general population within the jail system. RSVP is the first program in the country to specifically address violent offenders, the first restorative justice program in a county jail, and the first to bring victims and offenders together in a harm-healing process. RSVP has been featured in innumerable studies, books, magazine and newspaper articles, and was awarded the Innovations in American Government Award from the Ash Institute of Democracy and Innovation at Harvard University.
Over the past 20 years, RSVP has helped over 5,000 violent men examine the roots of their own violent behavior and dismantle male role belief systems in order to work toward healing. The RSVP model is driven by victim restoration, offender accountability, and community involvement. Participants commit to leading a life free of violence upon release, and many men who graduate from the program continue to educate others and engage in anti-violence education work post-release.
In addition to their own rehabilitation and personal transformation, many men in RSVP are simultaneously navigating the challenge of fatherhood. In fact, a majority of people incarcerated in the U.S. have minor children, and 45% were living with their children before becoming incarcerated. Right now, families around the country are experiencing extreme levels of anxiety and worry while trying to stay updated on the wellbeing of their incarcerated loved ones. With prison and jail visitation suspended, children are unable to see their incarcerated parents in person, and most contact is limited to only paid phone calls – which can be even more disorienting and upsetting for young children than the already tense environment of standard in-person visitation.
Community Works’ One Family program provides incarcerated parents the opportunity to participate in parenting classes, individual therapeutic counseling, and in-person parent child visits to practice the skills of openness, accountability, and empowerment in a safe and supportive environment. Under the current COVID-19 restrictions, One Family staff are working to provide alternative forms of visitation for these families and ensure that they can remain connected during this incredibly tumultuous time. One Family helps to mitigate the trauma of parent-child separation that results from incarceration, an adverse childhood experience that can lead to serious life-long health consequences. The program ensures that the parent-child relationship can remain in-tact despite the parent’s incarceration, and that families can be set up for healthy relationships upon the parent’s release.
One Family started as an initiative in September 2008 led by Community Works in partnership with the Sheriff’s Department and the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. SFCIPP was working to provide quality visits for CPS-mandated families, and chose to partner with Community Works to create the One Family Program with funding from the Zellerbach Family Foundation. The program has led to the creation of high quality, child-friendly visiting rooms in the women’s jail and the men’s maximum security jail. In addition to education and visits, One Family provides therapy for parents who are struggling within the environment and works with them to address their traumatic histories to make changes and create new futures for their families.
Community Works recently partnered with the Urban Institute to develop a toolkit for replicating the One Family program in other jail facilities around the nation. The resulting report,Model Practices for Parents in prisons or Jails: Reducing barriers to Family Connections, identifies some ideal practices that can support correctional administrators’ efforts to remove barriers that inhibit children from cultivating or maintaining relationships with their incarcerated parents during and immediately after incarceration.
The One Family program has partnered with many other leading institutions and service-providers, including the Drug Dependency Court, The No Violence Alliance, The Bridging Group, the California Institute of Integral Studies, and Jail Psychiatric Services. Through a contract with the San Francisco Human Services Agency, One Family works with parents in custody in danger of losing their child to the child welfare system. One Family staff members work together with child welfare social workers to support these incarcerated parents and their children. Even in cases where families cannot be reunited, One Family staff are able to assist with finding a relative to care for the child while the parent remains in custody.
RSVP and One Family are vital programs that equip people experiencing incarceration with the skills to repair and maintain healthy relationships with their loved ones, decrease violent behavior and recidivism, and put an end to the cycles of harm caused by crime and our justice system. Now, more than ever, these programs must be preserved and accommodations must be made to allow participants to continue making strides toward personal growth and healing.
In honor of #GivingTuesdayNow, Community Works is calling on our supporters and partners to support the One Family program and #KeepFamilliesConnected. Click here to learn how you can help.
San Francisco Public Library will host an exhibit this fall showcasing artwork made in Community Works programs over the past two decades.
Community Works’s groundbreaking programs and projects have served the Bay Area for more than 20 years. One of the most impactful ways that CW catalyzes understanding and change is with large-scale public events that give voice to marginalized communities through the creative and performing arts. These public events bring together diverse communities to educate, inform, transform and heal.
We offer this exhibition, which will be on display through December 2019, as a way to create connection and understanding. The pieces being shown are individual and collaborative works that are the visual creative expressions of people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. The artwork is informed and inspired by the deep inner work that we do as members of healing circles. We sit in circle to understand how we have harmed, how we have been harmed, what relationships have been impacted, how we can take full accountability for our actions, and what needs to be done to repair what has been broken. Individual stories are expressed through creative arts and shared with the larger community to tell our collective story of disconnection and reconnection between each other, our environment, and ourselves.
The September 29th Opening Reception will feature an exclusive screening of The Making of (Un)Common Ground
The opening reception of Reconnect the Disconnect will feature the premiere of an unearthed 20-year-old and never before seen video, “The Making of (Un)Common Ground,” about the original theater production of the same name, produced by Community Works and directed by Roberto G. Varea. (Un)Common Ground opened in 1999 to sold-out audiences at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and then at The Lorraine Hansberry Theater. Over a five-month period in 1999 five formally incarcerated men and five women survivors of violence, unknown to one another, would come together under the direction of Roberto Varea. They would share their stories and heartbreaks and support one another to explore the impact of their violence and victimization ultimately regaining a sense of power in their lives to become their own agents of healing. The ensemble created (Un)Common Ground.
The video is a compelling glimpse into the creative and heart-wrenching process of the two uncommon groups working together toward healing and restoration. It is a glimpse into the theater project that provided them the vehicle, the opportunity to take the journey, and the audience to be witness to it. The Director and the performers will be part of a panel after the screening.
The women of Rising Voices debuted their original performance piece, Deception of the Heart, last month during the First Annual Community Works Youth Theater Festival in San Francisco. The piecefocuses on experiences of domestic violence, survival, and healing.
Deception of the Heart is an original piece created by the women in the Rising Voices program, who channeled their own lived experiences to create a powerful collaborative story. The piece uses poetry, theatre and dance to address the many sides of domestic violence. Through their performance, the artists hope to inform others about the warning signs of unhealthy relationships, how easily one can become trapped in a cycle of violence, and the strength required to achieve healing. Afterward, the audience is asked to participate in a facilitated dialogue around their own experiences with domestic violence, and how to support friends or loved ones who may be in a violent relationship.
Rising Voices is Community Works’ arts program for young women, ages 18-25, at various stages of reentry post-incarceration. The program includes weekly support meetings, where participants hold restorative justice circles, learn mindfulness techniques, and find healing through art. Over the course of the program, the women in the group are led through writing and performance exercises and work together on a collaborative performance project, drawing from their own experiences. Rising Voices also works with women inside the SF County Jail, and the material generated in those workshops is incorporated into the performances and other projects. Upon release, these contributors are encouraged to join the support circles with their fellow artists on the outside.
For youth with incarcerated parents, graduation can be a bittersweet milestone. We created the scholarship program because we want the Project WHAT! youth to know that there are people in their community who care about them, who are proud of them, and who want them to succeed.
Project WHAT! is the only organization that provides scholarships for children of incarcerated parents, and we’re proud that we’ve been able to award funds to 25 graduates since we started the scholarship program six years ago.
We’ll have snacks for guests, and you’ll have the chance to win some awesome prizes! Bring your wallet and your friends, and enjoy some after-work drinks while you help us send off our graduating seniors and set them up for success as they head off to college.
It all began late last summer when restorative arts facilitator Dee Myers asked restorative justice circle facilitator Jo Bauen whether she would like to collaborate on a mosaic arts project for parolees, sponsored by the California Arts Commission. This seemed like a perfect opportunity for members of the Citizen Circle, a weekly restorative justice circle for people on parole, to try their hand at mosaic arts. It was an opportunity to use the arts to express the restorative themes of truth, forgiveness, conflict, and accountability, and it was an opportunity for the power of arts to uplift each participant and to strengthen the group as a whole. Finally, it was an opportunity for Jo to use her background in mosaic tile work in the context of restorative justice. Needless to say, the Citizen circle accepted Dee’s invitation!
Dee began by leading the group in a brainstorm potential topics for the art project. The Citizens Circle is open to all who care to join, and is made up of equal numbers of parolees and never-incarcerated individuals. Participant spoke of their desire to rebuild their identity, to deal with racial profiling, and to successfully transition from prison to free society. We discussed our values and guidelines, and established group safety. Dee helped build confidence with arts-based team building exercises. Based on participant input we organize a 10 week program that resulted in 14 stunning mosaic self-portraits.
Mosaic requires a lot of physical materials: broken tile, pebbles, mirrors, artifacts, backer board and adhesive. Preparing the tile takes a variety of tools: diamond saw, neighbors, score and snap, hammers, eye and skin protection. Week by week the project grew to fill large community space. Each week we had to line the floors with drop cloths, prep the mosaic materials for 15 participants, organize the setting materials, the tools, and the safety equipment. Each week the participants arrived, looked at our enormous set up, and for the most part everyone got to work. Some people jumped right in, others hesitated, chatted, and hung in the background. A few resisted but that was OK, we set up a space for people to chill. Mosaic is slow and there is a world of options for how one might proceed. But shoulder to shoulder, women and men, white and black, incarcerated or never incarcerated, timid artists and brave, proceed we did.
The project continued through the summer, and at last, one or two portraits were nearing completion. That inspired other artists to attempt completion. Soon it was time to grout the initial artworks. Grouting is messy, frustrating, difficult, destructive to your skin and eyes, and did I say messy? But then we grouted a couple pieces, and they started to shine. At last all pieces were finished. We mounted them in a sunny conference room and had track lights installed so the artwork is featured.
On April 16, 2019, CWW hosted an evening of food and music to honor the artwork. A large crowd stood circle-fashion to hear from the artists and to offer our hopes for all men and women reentering society from prison. People said, “I hope they all learn to forgive themselves.” “I hope they find connection and love.” And, “I hope they find a circle of trusting people who help them rebuild their lives like this one.”