How art classes help detainees at Kane County jail

A simple mistake can have devastating results, including jail time. Many who are incarcerated are often first-time offenders.

The safety and rehabilitation of detainees at the Kane County Adult Correctional Center is a priority for Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain. Not only has the sheriff spent time overnight in the jail to experience jail conditions, but he also has incorporated programs that benefit the detainees.

A creative arts program was recently added with painting classes taught by artist, Kathy Haerr. With a bachelor of fine arts from the Art Institute of Chicago, Haerr is known for her paintings that connecting her passions and the causes that she supports. She has previously worked with women who are victims of domestic abuse.

She is currently involved in her third series of classes at the county jail. "I always start the class with simple meditation," said Haerr, "to help them relax and let their imagination take over."

Detainees at the Kane County Adult Correctional Center show off some of the work they completed in art classes at the jail taught by Kathy Haerr, far left. Courtesy of Kane County Sheriff's Office

Haerr likes to limit each class to about eight participants. She has separate classes for men and women. Haerr begins with painting techniques and lets her students do landscapes. Then she teaches her students how to take those skills to mural painting.

"Some of the people in the class have never picked up a brush before, never painted anything," she said. "When we finished the mural of the "Tree of Life," they were so proud of the completed work."

The classes have had a positive effect on the detainees.

Comments range from "Art is fun and relaxing," to "I am much more confident now."

One detainee wrote, "I was scared to let anyone see my art before because I thought they would make fun of me, but since the classes and the mural, I am very proud for them to see."

The classes at the jail have had a positive impact on Haerr, as well.

Artist Kathy Haerr teaches painting classes to detainees at the Kane County Adult Correctional Center. Courtesy of Kane County Sheriff's Office

"I had one man who asked for help in painting a doorway," said Haerr. "As we worked on it, I asked him what was on the other side. He said, 'my family.' I realized this painting was his connection to his family. It really made a difference for both of us."

Art can be an emotional outlet, a form of expression that can't always be done with words. It is a skill set that can follow the detainees for the rest of their lives. Two students have said that they want to pursue a career in art. Studies have shown that there are tremendous benefits to art education. Over the past few decades, Larry Brewster, a professor at the University of San Francisco, has been studying the impact of arts programs in prisons. He found that prison arts programs improve inmate behavior, help connect detainees with their families, and provide them with a way to give back by donating their art. Upon release, those who participated in art classes improved their writing skills, had greater intellectual agility and creativity, and motivation.

Detainees in art classes at the Kane County Adult Correctional Center created a mural titled "Tree of Life." Courtesy of Kathy Haerr

"Recreational painting is a very constructive and calming outlet," Hain said. "We've received great feedback from the detainees in the program.

Hain plans to display additional art within the jail and sheriff's office spaces. "The art on the walls provides some color to the normally mundane environment here," added Hain.

There are plans to make cards of the art and sell them to make the art program self-sustaining.

There is another positive response to the art program - gratitude. Many of the detainees have said how much they appreciate the efforts of Miss K, their teacher. And Haerr is equally appreciative. She is happy to have the opportunity to bring the joy of art to those who have never experienced it.

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