Story Creation in Arts-In-Corrections In California's Central Valley

Michael D. McCarty

When I told my sister that I was giving storytelling workshops in five prisons in California"s central Valley, without hesitation this eighty-five-year-old proclaimed, "Don't let anybody hit you upside your head, steal your clothes, and walk out like they're you!"

Fortunately that was not an issue. From 1990-2003 the Arts-In-Corrections (AIC) program ran successfully in prisons throughout California. Results noted that inmates who participated were less likely to engage in violence and those who got out were more likely to stay out. Plus there was a ripple effect: overall violence in prisons with are programs went down significantly. 

I was a professional storyteller when I first heard of the AIC program from Zoot, a friend and performance artist. Zoot had been involved in the program as both an artist and an administrator. I remember thinking, and perhaps saying, that I'd love to be involved in such a project.

Fast forward to summer 2014. I get two phone calls. One is from Zoot asking if I'd like to five storytelling workshops in prisons. The AIC program was being resuscitated, and the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, California, where Zoot is Executive Director, was putting together a program.

The second call is from Quetzal Flores, Grammy Award-winning recording artist, Community Activists, and Program Director for the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) asking the same question! Coolness.

I submitted proposals to both programs, and both proposals were accepted. Since September, 2014 I've been working continuously in Level 2, 3, and 4 facilities. Level 4s are the roughest.

Most of the inmates who came to my workshops had no idea what they were about. Some were put off by the word "telling," which has a different meaning for Those incarcerated. At one prison I changed the class title to "Story Creation" at the inmates' behest because they wanted more folks to take the class.

I modeled stories, primarily personal stories with an occasional folk or historical tale. Then I introduced them to my Story Bag, a bag filled with wacky items: whiffle tube, rubber chicken, ball-of-fingers, etc. They took to it. In one session a very buff and stern-looking black man pulled out a green-fuzzy-blobby-thingy and told a hilarious story that caught us all off guard.

Sometimes we would "Talk Story." We'd sit and talk of whatever came up, and stories just happened. An inmate who'd been incarcerated since he was a juvenile was frustrated because he was still being defined by the crime he committed over twenty years ago. This Showed in hes telling, which was more of rant. While talking Story one day he recalled a Corrections Officer (CO) he'd met when he first came into the system. This CO saw the food in him, and advised him to let go of his knuckle-headed, gangbanging ways, which he did. Over the years the inmate reconnected with this CO. When the officer introduced the inmate to other officers he'd say, "I know this guy. He's a good guy."

I told my student that this was the story he needed to tell. When he told it he was calm and centered, no ranting. You can see a video clip at

I've been back to some of the prisons two or three times. Old students come back bringing new ones. I give them journals and many of them have gotten seriously inro writing. It has been an amazing project, and I've only just begun.

Michael D. McCarty's mom was a storyteller. She told and read him stories. in 1992 he met Joel Ben Izzy, professional storyteller. He picked Joel's brain and bowed that he would become a professional teller too. Since then he's been running his mouth around the country and around the world.

Storytelling Magazine is published for members of the National Storytelling Network (NSN).  For more information, visit NSN online at