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UNF English professor teaches art to incarcerated juveniles

UNF English professor Dr. Mary Baron has been teaching the Art in the Jail Program as a volunteer with help from UNF students for more than five years. The program teaches incarcerated juveniles at the downtown pre-trial detention facility how to analyze books, write poetry and create works of art including collages and paintings.

The artwork is scheduled to be displayed at UNF the last week of October in Building 8.

The Spinnaker sat down with Dr. Baron to profile the program and experiences she has had while teaching at the jail.

Why did you decide to teach at the jail?

“I’ve worked in jails in Alaska, and I do believe everyone is born with a script for their life. If we can change their story, we can change their life. The kids have many things going against them like the lack of a stable family, substance abuse or low income. One thing I often hear them saying is that no one really listens to them, and that’s one thing art can do is show others what’s inside you. And if I can help them do that, then they feel a lot better about themselves. They deserve the chance to learn some skills that can help them in many ways.”

Did you find the work you do improves the incarcerated juveniles’ way of thinking?

“They improve on their attitude about things like art and things they’ve never thought about before. They will tell me things like, ‘I didn’t know I had this inside me and if fights break out in the dorms, I just sit in my cell and write.’ So, it’s a survival skill and a way of examining what they have done with their life. All of those are things middle-class kids get taught at home. These kids haven’t had that opportunity.”

How do their interest levels compare to your UNF students?

“In the jail we are it. We are the Fourth of July and the circus parade. They have no radio, no TV and limited access to books. They often sit in their cells for 20-plus hours a day. So they appreciate interaction. They behave really well, and I’ve only once had to ask a student to leave. We work to develop material that catches their interests. They are often more well-behaved than my students [at UNF].”

Are you the only one that volunteers for the program?

“Over the years I’ve had six different UNF students volunteer with me, and it’s always a good experience for them. The kids look at me and they see Grandma, but they look at the other kids and think, ‘they are the same age as I am, so why am I here and they’re there.’”

What are some of the different skills you teach?

“We teach them writing, and we started with poetry. One of the guys is writing a novel. One is working on a screenplay. We are doing collages now. The collages and some of the poems will be on display here at the end of October. I have a recording of some of them reading their poetry that will also be playing. I wanted to teach them some basic dictionary skills, so I had them create a dictionary of jail terms that will be on sale at the exhibit for $2. We collected so many interesting terms; the sherriff’s office now has it on their Web site so [Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office] officers can see what suspects are talking about.”

Have you received positive feedback from the corrections officers?

“The juvenile officers are very positive about it. They constantly tell me they can see a difference in [the juveniles’] attitude. But the officers’ job isn’t to spend time one-on-one with them, so the volunteers like me really get to know them better over the years. I try to treat them like decent human beings, and usually if you treat people like decent human beings, they will act that way.”

Compiled by Josh Salman.

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