Using the Arts to Help Formerly Incarcerated Black Men Succeed

Arts-Based Programming Promotes Self-Expression, Reflection and Critical Thinking

The study was based on observations and interviews with formerly incarcerated black male students.
Charles Lea
Charles Lea, assistant professor at the UH Graduate College of Social Work

Formerly incarcerated black men enrolled in an alternative school with arts-based programming — writing, poetry, music — showed healthier social and emotional development and higher academic achievement as they transitioned to adulthood, according to research from the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.

Young black men are disproportionately incarcerated compared to other racial and gender groups, and with little coordination between the justice system and the educational system, more than 40% of young people released from correctional facilities don’t return to school. Many eventually get locked up again.

As part of his dissertation study, Charles Lea set out to find ways to cultivate educational resilience and reduce recidivism. He visited an alternative high school in Los Angeles County that offers arts-based programming, observing and interviewing instructors, administrators and formerly incarcerated black male students ages 18-25. Previous research has found the arts, which emphasize the personal, emotional, human and spiritual aspects of learning, can positively influence young people who have been exposed to adversity.

“It’s a way they can express themselves comfortably, whether that’s through music, poetry or performance, but little was known about how it could impact black men who had been incarcerated,” said Lea, now an assistant professor at the UH Graduate College of Social Work. “Having these alternative ways to engage and educate is critical to address racial disparities in criminal justice.”

Study participants expressed difficulty reentering society, in part because their early incarceration put them behind academically and otherwise affected their social and emotional development. Prime examples of the problems faced by the young men include finding housing and stable employment. Without jobs and safe housing, many gravitate to gangs and illegal activities in search of social, financial and emotional support.

“I came in here (to the alternative school) with shackles … and I really mean that. I came here just stressed. I was at hopeless state of mind,” said one study participant, identified as Paul.

The study, published in the American Journal of Community Psychology, found that young black men who participated in art-related activities such as poetry and music focusing on the black experience found an opportunity for self-expression, reflection and critical thinking. The study also found that providing students a safe place to build positive relationships with students from similar backgrounds was critical to their academic performance and successful social-emotional development. 

“We’d just spill ourselves out on that piece of paper, and that was just like an icebreaker for me. It was a relief of all the stress and toxic-ness I had to suffocate,” said Chris, another study participant. “I’m being honest, that class actually helped me find peace with myself.”

Lea’s research is inspired by his personal experience growing up in the California Bay Area at the height of the war on drugs in the 1980s.  “I want to play a positive role in addressing this whole process that too many black men find themselves in. Arts-based programming allows youth to feel comfortable and is culturally congruent to the way they feel comfortable learning.”