Arts in Prison

Bringing the power of the arts to inmates, an interview with Leigh Lynch

We all know the power of the arts—the ability to touch our souls and change our lives. We may not take the power of the arts for granted, but sometimes we do take our access to them for granted. Despite their universal ability to express the human spirit and make deep emotional connections, access to the arts is usually a luxury reserved for the privileged. But not in the hands of Arts in Prison, a nonprofit based in Kansas City that strives to bring arts education to inmates in Kansas state prisons. Arts in Prison seeks to use the arts to create positive experiences for inmates in hopes of preparing them to re-enter society—to bring hope to those who have little of it. We sat down recently with Leigh Lynch, Executive Director of Arts in Prison, to discuss the program’s goals and how the public can get involved.

Kansas City Spaces: How did Arts in Prison come to be?

Leigh Lynch: Arts in Prison was started in 1995 by Elvera Voth, an internationally known choral conductor, and a native Kansan who grew up in Newton. When she retired, she came back to Kansas, because this is where her family is, and for awhile worked at the Lyric Opera—but was not feeling very satisfied. After years of making music for people who could pay for it, Elvera wanted to give those same opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t have had them. Her husband was warden of Lansing Prison at the time. They set up a meeting, she put up some flyers to start a men’s choral group, and a bunch of people signed up. After a few years working inside, she convinced them to let the choir come out and perform in the community. Then people started thinking, “This is really helpful and beneficial. Could we do a variety of classes?” And slowly we began to build up the repertoire we have now.

KCS: And how did you come to be involved?

LL: When we relocated here for my husband’s job nine years ago, they had a posting for a director, so I applied and had an interview. I thought, “This is a really excellent program, and I might write you a check, but I’m not sure I can make this my passion.” And I’ve been here ever since. I got into it out of luck. Previously I was employed by the Girl Scout Council, and I firmly believed in their program goals and objectives. Back in the day, one of their first goals was to help you reach your full individual self-potential—and that has been a core belief of mine all along. And that’s exactly what our program does.

KCS: What programs are available to inmates? Which are the biggest hits with the inmates?

LL: East Hill Singers continues to be one of our most popular programs. Our next most popular is probably the Shakespeare production. This summer they’re putting on King Lear, which marks our fifth production. Knitting and crocheting are really hot right now, too. I think the inmates like it because it gives them a product at the end. They’re moving toward something they can hold in their hand. Most of the products are donated to organizations such as Children’s Mercy or City Union Mission. So not only are they getting to create something and have a finished product to hold in their hand, but they are giving back to society. We also have a mixed media visual arts class, and in the past we’ve had painting and drawing.

The inmates get to keep their work, if they are inclined. They can authorize us to make prints of it, and when we do our concerts we have an exhibit of works created and offer products for sale such as matted prints or note cards. We use the inmates work to create those. We also are involved with GED programming and workforce development programming.

KCS: Of all your years being involved with Arts in Prison, are there any moments or stories in particular that stand out to you?

LL: There are a lot of fantastic stories. I will go from time to time to sit with them and collect their stories. And what I hear over and over again is hope, especially with the East Hill Singers because they get to come out into the community. They can be seen by the community and interact with community. One guy said, “Everybody is afraid I’m going to be their next-door neighbor—but I’m just as afraid who is going to be my neighbor.”

By learning to express themselves in a positive pro-social way, to look at things from a different perspective, to have an opportunity to have a success, whether it’s putting on a production, creating a poem or singing a song, that moves them forward. As they rack up these positive social experiences, they began to see hope that they are not the sum total of their crimes or the worst moment in their lives. They are able to create something and sustain something and behave in a different way. And all of a sudden they think, “Maybe I can get out in the world and be successful.”

KCS: If you could share one thing with the general public about your program, what would it be?

LL: What we need is for people to be aware and open-minded and open-hearted. Something I tell the public all the time is whether you know it or not, you are connected to someone in prison. They’re in your churches, your neighborhood. They shop at your grocery store. We take these people out of society and lock them up, and we think, “Now they’re gone and we don’t have to think about them anymore.” People don’t always know why they should be concerned about programs like ours, but the reality is 99 percent of inmates are going to come back. And we have to think about what their opportunities and support are going to be when they get out. They can come back with either hate in their eyes or love in their heart. By supporting programs like Arts in Prison, you are helping them to come back in a way that makes them successful.