Prison painter teaching inmates lessons on art and life

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by JOHN SHARIFY / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @JohnSharify

KING5.com

Posted on June 10, 2013 at 4:39 PM

Updated Monday, Jun 10 at 7:00 PM

In Gary Thomas’ art class, his students listen to his every word and watch his every move.  He’s painting and teaching with every stroke. Not just about art, but about life.

“You have choices,” he said.

He’s talking about the color of paint they could choose from, but he’s also talking about the choices they’ve made in their lives.  

Thomas teaches at the Monroe Correctional Complex.  

When asked if he’s there for the rest of his life, Thomas replies: “Yeah, unless something amazing happens.”

He then lets out a big laugh. But there’s nothing funny about how he ended up here.  

The 63-year-old tells about his heroin habit from years ago, that lead to robbing banks and hospitals, that lead to three convictions, three strikes, that lead to his life sentence, that lead to his art and eventually to this prison classroom.  

“We have the freedom to really express,” he said. “I have the freedom to paint what I want.”

Currently he has the freedom to teach a class, but the art class he’s teaching has just as much to do with numbers as the art.  

“I think the normal recidivism rate is 66% in this state,” said inmate and student Jeff Conner.

Gary Thomas knows those numbers drop dramatically if the inmates get their college degrees. They can do at the correctional facility, thanks to a non-profit called University Beyond Bars.

“As one of our students quoted ‘When you learn, you don’t return,’” says Gary Idleburg, co-founder of University Beyond Bars (UBB).

The UBB program was founded eight years ago. Inmates can choose from a variety of classes: math, physics, geography, African-American history, English, English literature and business.

And once you get that degree?

“The probability of you coming back is 10% or less. That means you have a 90% chance of success,” said Idleburg.

Jeff Conner likes those numbers. “I’m not going to recidivate,” he said.  

And there’s this number too. According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, it costs $46,000 to incarcerate a prisoner in Washington state. Conner has already served 16 years and expects to be released in two years. He’s getting his Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

“I’ve matured and changed. I’m not the 23-year-old idiot I was that came here,” Conner said. “I’m going to be squarer than square and I won’t even cross the street sideways.”  

Thomas won’t have that freedom. He’s there for life. But he is free to teach art, create it and remind his students about the choices they can make when they leave prison. His hope is once they leave, they’ll never return.  

“Look at the possibilities here. There’s nothing but possibilities,” he tells them. “A blank white paper. So what are you going to do with it?”  

For more information about the UBB program go to universitybeyondbars.org.
 
You may want to mark July 20 on your calendar. The art work created in Gary Thomas' class will be featured in an art show at the Machine House Brewery in Georgetown.  Thomas' work will also be featured. 

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