8 Lessons for Alternatives to Incarceration through the Arts

Share this article Tweet about this on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn Email this to someone

From 2010 to 2015, the Arts Infusion Initiative helped build skills for a safer future for Chicago’s at-risk and criminally involved young people.

Arts ed program in detention center offers 8 lessons for serving high-risk youth in high-risk settings

Tweet this

Launched by The Chicago Community Trust, the initiative supported 14 nonprofits to provide rigorous arts instruction for high-risk teens in high-risk settings: young people detained in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC), and in the Lawndale, Little Village, Back of the Yards and South Shore communities.

The programs were infused with social and emotional learning skills, including conflict resolution, career readiness and preparation for the future. An assessment by the Urban Institute documented the Arts Infusion Initiative’s positive outcomes for its participants.

The report also identified a series of recommendations for future arts programs for detained and at-risk youth, to build on the Arts Infusion Initiative’s challenges and its successes:

  1. Choose the right teachers. Program directors should ensure that their teaching artists are not only knowledgeable and accomplished, but also approachable, and aware of young people’s needs and vulnerabilities. Each teacher’s lessons should provide a respectful, safe space for creative exploration.
  2. Support and retain those teachers, too. High-quality teachers should be paid accordingly—both for instruction time, and for planning time and assessment activities. Arts Infusion teaching artists were also regularly provided with opportunities to network with peers and learn about the work of other organizations.
  3. Offer a choice of art forms, with emphasis on physical movement. Participants responded most positively to programs that gave them a choice of forms of expression, and to programs of any genre that engaged them physically as well as mentally. Movement-related activities could include not just dancing, but also acting out stories, or standing during poetry readings and music recordings.
  4. “I can do more than I was told,” one participant at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center learned. “If I can do this, then I can do other things… You can be more than what society thinks you are.”


  5. Ensure that programs are grounded in rigorous criteria. Beyond providing instruction, the programs should incorporate well-conceived unit plans and routine assessments of student progress.
  6. Be flexible with lesson planning. While some students may be able to attend regularly, other youth may only be able to attend one or two sessions due to a variety of challenges. Programs should cultivate flexibility in structure, so that youth whose attendance is stable can enjoy a sequential progression of skills, while more limited “single-lesson” or “individual mentoring” sessions are also available.
  7. Provide opportunities for students to share what they create. Young people appreciated and worked hard towards culminating performances: poetry slams, music listening parties, plays or gallery exhibitions that enabled young artists to share with family and friends.
  8. Give them an audience. In many neighborhoods, staging a final performance is not enough. Family and friends may have to weigh whether to risk crossing gang territories or take unsafe transit routes to attend; planning and providing safe transportation may be required to build the supportive audience participants are hoping and working for.
  9. Work hard to stay involved. Arts Infusion programs all found it challenging to stay connected with young people after their release from detention. One suggested solution was to create a third-party “arts engagement specialist” position: a person not affiliated with the justice system, but uniquely positioned to interact with detention and arts program staff and youth—both behind detention walls and in the community.

The Arts Infusion Initiative established a collaboration between The Chicago Community Trust, Chicago Police Department, the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, Northwestern University, Chicago Public Schools and Loyola University.

Its work came at a critical juncture in our nation’s search for viable, alternative pathways for youth whose life circumstances severely limit their opportunities for educational and economic development and advancement, increasing their risk of incarceration.

As one participant at the JTDC explained, the Arts Infusion program helped him realize “I can do more than I was told. If I can do this, then I can do other things… You can be more than what society thinks you are.”

Learn more about the program and its impact, or read the Urban Institute’s complete assessment report.