Georgians Take On Criminal-Justice Reform With Auction of Inmate Art

Attendees of a Feb. 12 auction of art crafted by Georgia inmates drew pose with the featured works. From left to right: Georgia state Sen. Ed Harbison, Gov. Nathan Deal, HeartBound Ministries founder Andrea Shelton, and Lucy Fugate, who helped conceptualize the Little Readers Program. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Shelton)

ATLANTA (CN) – In a state with the country’s lowest literacy rates and largest prison populations, lawmakers and nonprofit workers gathered at an auction block in downtown Atlanta last week to change that narrative.

Featuring more than 200 items crafted by inmates of Georgia prisons, the second-annual “Art From the Inside” included portraits of Rosa Parks and former President Barack Obama, handcrafted wooden bowls, purses crafted from candy wrappers, and mixed-media sculptures.

With the likes of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Democrat Senator Ed Harbison entering bids, organizers say the Feb. 12 event at the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building fetched $9,575 by the night’s end.

Explaining why the sale’s proceeds are being directed to a literacy program called the Little Readers Program, HeartBound Ministries founder Andrea Shelton emphasized in an interview that Georgia’s reputation for incarceration cannot be seen in a vacuum.

“I tie that number directly to literacy levels,” Shelton said.

A statewide initiative, Shelton’s Little Readers Program allows incarcerated parents and grandparents to make videos of themselves reading children’s books aloud. DVDs of the recordings are then mailed to the inmates’ children and grandchildren, along with the accompanying books.

A double-edged sword, the program encourages literacy among children and inmates, while also helping inmates maintain connections to their families.

Shelton, who launched the program in 2014, noted that the DVDs are also sent with a list of nutritional information and literacy resources.

In addition to outreach programs in this vein, Shelton credited Gov. Deal with making a difference in the Legislature.

Georgia saw the lowest number of incarceration since 2002 last year, and the state also had the lowest number of black Americans entering the prison system since 1987.

“I think he’s done more to bring about a culture change in corrections than any governor in the history of Georgia,” said Shelton. “It’s not just a policy issue for him, it’s personal. He cares about people and cares about seeing them succeed. He cares about second chances.”

According to report released this month by Georgia’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, overall crime dropped 24 percent in Georgia from 2008 to 2016. Imprisonment rates also decreased 6 percent over the same period.

The council itself is in its infancy, launched in Deal’s first year in office when he signed the resolution HB 265 in 2011.

While Georgia’s rate of incarceration is still high compared with the rest of the U.S., Deal’s office says reforms in his tenure have caused it to drop. Among various sentencing alternatives for nonviolent people, the state now prioritizes prison beds for violent, career criminals, and has strengthened probation and drug courts.

The links between poor literacy, high school dropout rates, and crime are well documented.

“Research consistently shows that education is a key ingredient to successful re-entry, and to keeping people out of trouble in the first place,” said Adam Gelb, executive director of Pew Charitable Trusts, in an email.

Gelb directs Pew’s public-safety performance project, which aids U.S. states with policies and practices in adult and juvenile sentencing and corrections.

In Georgia, 1 in 6 adults have low literacy skills, according to a March 2017 report released by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

Among students who can’t read proficiently by the end of fourth grade, 66 percent will end up in jail or on welfare. Research also shows that 70 percent of Georgia’s incarcerated population do not have high school diplomas.

Gelb at Pew said that Deal has taught policymakers across the country that criminal-justice reform is both good policy and good politics.

“Within Georgia, the reforms have turned around a system that was growing by thousands of inmates and adding hundreds of millions in new taxpayer costs,” said Gelb. “Now the emphasis in on evidence-backed alternatives and recidivism and crime rates are down.”

A 2003 study by the University of California, Berkeley, found that a 1 percent increase in the high school completion rate of men ages 20-60 would save the U.S. $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime incurred by victims and society.

Shelton at HeartBound Ministries said she saw the problems with Georgia’s criminal-justice system firsthand, launching her nonprofit in 2003 after her brother was given a 15-year prison sentence for injury by motor vehicle.

“We had a policy of a locking people up and throwing away the key,” said Shelton.

Adding that that’s no longer the case, Shelton said the diversion of addicts and low-level offenders to accountability and drug courts has made a difference.

“The people who are getting locked up now are violent offenders,” Shelton said.

Shelton said organizations like hers that focus on rehabilitation are also key.

“Art From the Inside” has allowed Shelton’s program to bring more 2,300 children with books and recordings of their incarcerated family members.

This year’s auction provided another 1,100 children in Georgia with DVDs and books

Shelton’s nonprofit also also holds workshops with incarcerated parents on the importance of literacy and the importance of teaching their children to read.

“The best way to get kids to read is to model behavior,” Shelton said. “This allows them to do this. It’s so simple and yet it’s so amazing.”

In order to provide Georgia children more access to education and resources, Gov. Deal’s Education Reform Commission recommended a weighted student funding system in 2017 that would provide more money to districts for students with special needs, including those with disabilities and those living in poverty.

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