Inmate arts program inspires pride

February 27, 2014 • Entertainment

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, Corrections Officer Diane Speas teaches a painting technique during a meeting of the Leelanau County Inmate Art Project in Suttons Bay, Mich. The project gives inmates a chance to learn to paint, sew, knit and other activities through a grant from the Suttons Bay Art Festival and with donated supplies. (AP Photo/The Record-Eagle, Jan-Michael Stump) MANDATORY CREDIT

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Diane Speas’ art students learn to use pastels, quilt, crochet and even tie flies for fly fishing.

But her students don’t go home when class ends; they just head back to their dorms.

Speas is a corrections officer at Leelanau County’s jail, and she’s teaching inmates, not college students.

“Some of these people have never accomplished anything or finished anything, and then they make a hat, or something else they made themselves,” Speas told the Traverse City Record-Eagle ( ). “They are so proud, so proud, because they’re never been given the opportunity to do that before.”

Leelanau County’s inmate arts program is funded almost entirely by donations. The program launched about five years ago and recently received [auth] its annual $750 contribution from the Suttons Bay Art Festival.

“We hope the stuff they’re learning and doing they can take with them to be more productive on the outside,” said Lt. Todd Roush, the jail administrator. “It’s also a good behavior management tool.”

The program aims to give inmates a skill they can use later in life, but with Speas at the helm, inmates come away from the program with the sense someone believes in them.

“What I find especially remarkable about it is, here, you have a corrections officer who does this and she’s kind and she’s accepting and nonjudgmental and wants to teach us new things,” said Shannon Woods, an inmate serving time for a drug case.

Picking up a pencil and drawing helps Woods channel some of her depression into something positive, she said.

“This art class provides hope that we can actually achieve something while we’re in here,” said Woods. “Being a drug addict, when you learn new things, it’s a good outlet.”

That’s exactly what county Sheriff Mike Borkovich hopes inmates receive from the classes.

“There’s a lot of good people who end up in jail. By showing them compassion, we’re hoping they might think twice before sticking a needle in their arm again,” Borkovich said. “If we can have a positive influence maybe they can make better decisions when they get out.”

Every day inmates look out the window and hope to spot Speas, a sign that classes are about to begin. There’s no set schedule, although a knitting instructor comes in once a week.

Classes are a highlight for many inmates and help break up jail’s monotony and isolation.

“You forget for a minute that you’re in jail. We’re humans and you’re connecting to your fellow peer next to you,” Woods said.

Up to a dozen inmates can participate in a class, Speas said. Only low-security inmates are allowed to participate, and every knitting needle and pin is counted and has to be accounted for before anyone leaves the classroom.

The atmosphere, and sense of doing something positive for others, prompts Speas to spend her own time and money on the project. She brings in class supplies and also volunteers time outside of work.

“I get more satisfaction out of it than anybody,” Speas said. “(Inmates) find they’re able to do certain things and express themselves in a manner they haven’t been able to before.”

Speas, herself a member of the Suttons Bay Art Festival committee, was familiar with painting with oils, watercolors and pastels. But when she started the inmate art classes, she took a part-time job at a quilt shop so she could learn how to quilt and pass on the skill to her students.

The program, which started with inmates making and selling Christmas cards, evolved into something bigger. Now, inmates have access to sewing machines, an iron, pastels, acrylics and canvasses.

Some of the art that emerges from the program finds a good home. Mittens and other knitwear sometimes goes to agencies that offer aid to county residents.

The flies for fly fishing will go to veterans, said DJ Schmidt, a county resident and master certified fishing instructor who taught the inmates to tie flies.

“I was very impressed with how good they were with their hands and their attitudes, everything,” Schmidt said. “I’d go back in a heartbeat.”

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