The power of the word

Arts program hopes to lift inmates’ sights and build character

Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2006

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Spoken word artist Omekongo Dibinga performs rap and poetry for youthful offender inmates last week.

Spoken word artist Omekongo Dibinga unleashed a series of forceful rhymes to an audience of more than 60 male inmates inside the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Clarksburg one day last week.

His rhymes imparted a message of hope. He told inmates no one has to curse or degrade women to be a rapper.

Dibinga, 30, also told the inmates they have the ability to rise above labels, even though many people in society do not give them a chance to succeed after being locked up.

The inmates, wearing jail-issued gray jumpsuits and flip-flops or their own Air Jordan sneakers, applauded vigorously at the conclusion of each poem.

Dibinga gave two presentations — one for male youthful offenders and another for a group of women inmates.

‘‘There is nothing greater than working to make other lives better,” Dibinga said after the performances. ‘‘Some people need to see positive images of males. Some of the females don’t have positive images in their lives.”

Dibinga talked about his struggles growing up in a poor neighborhood in Boston and the joys of publishing a book of his own poetry.

Harlan Webster, 22, of Silver Spring was in the county jail for violating his drug probation. He was among the inmates listening to Dibinga’s presentation.

‘‘I wrote down notes when he was speaking,” Webster said. ‘‘I can shape my own life. I won’t let this keep me down.”

Dibinga’s performance was sponsored by Project Youth Artreach as part of a larger arts program in the county correctional facility.

Through workshops, the outreach program has given inmates a chance to channel their creativity toward drumming, poetry, drawing and sculpture. During the past year, Project Youth Artreach also has brought musicians from Quebec and Ghana to perform in the correctional facility.

The arts program has helped to keep the inmates out of trouble in the jail and worked to bring inmates together across racial boundaries, Warden Robert Green said.

‘‘We are dealing with diversity and not judging others,” he said. ‘‘We discover hidden talent and focus on issues of teamwork. It is not just entertainment, but lessons of life and community. The value of this program is tremendous.”

The County Council awarded a $35,000 grant for the arts program in the jail in May, which will support the program through June 30. Project Youth Artreach also has received support from the Mead Family Foundation and the Carl M. Freeman Foundation.

The arts program is a lifeline for the inmates and it gives them the opportunity to share their feelings, said Claire Schwadron, director of Project Youth Artreach.

‘‘There is incredible talent in the facility,” she said. ‘‘It is my personal belief that there is a disproportionate amount of talent locked up.

‘‘The way the school system devalues arts and music, some people believe they can’t be successful and they turn to other things,” she added.

Nine pieces of the inmate’s artwork are on display in the lobby of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. Visitors will be able to view the art display until June.

Artist Maria Anasazi has visited the jail more than 20 times over the past year to teach the inmates about sculpture. Her work has been displayed in many art exhibits all over the county and she teaches at many colleges, but she said she has a special connection to the inmates at the county jail.

‘‘I feel great because this is one of my favorite populations,” Anasazi said. ‘‘I have not been in a detention center, but we have all been in our own cells in life. I receive a lot from giving positiveness.”

Eight of the nine inmates who created the artwork in the sculpture display have since been released from the jail, she said.