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In one less-than-orthodox painting, you can see the Virgin Mary dolled up with a rebel bandana across her face, flames bursting from her chest. Margarita, the artist, says the piece is a self-portrait, one that owns up to her bad girl status while emphasizing that “she has a good heart.” It’s one of many self-aware paintings by children residing in places like Harris County Leadership Academy and the Burnett-Bayland Reception Center—different names for an identical purpose.

“They’re actually prisons,” says Birgit Walker, executive director of the Children’s Prison Arts Project, a non-profit team of four that, since 1994, has entered Houston’s juvenile detention facilities to teach more than 27,000 kids how to paint, write and act. As a rule, CPAP never asks the children what landed them in these facilities. For their purposes, it doesn’t matter. 

“We’re probably the first time these kids are being told, ‘You’ve got something to offer,’” says Diana Muniz, a visual artist who works with the project, trying to teach children about self-care and self-love. A recent workshop, for example, asked girls to discover their inner strength, producing images of larger-than-life women in control of their universe. “That’s the power of this—making kids conscious,” Muniz says. “We process emotionally through these paintings. No, it’s not art therapy, but it is healing on a soul level.”

When Osike Matthews arrived at the Burnett-Bayland Reception Center at age 12, he was struggling badly with his anger. But Walker—who Matthews calls Miss Gypsy—insisted he start acting with CPAP. By 13, he had written his own play about gun violence, bullying and abuse, which he and other boys performed for the facility. “I hadn’t acted, I hadn’t really written anything,” Matthews says. “I hadn’t gotten into poetry or anything until Miss Gypsy kind of turned me on to my gifts.”

Now 19 and out of the system, Matthews regularly meets Walker for lunch or at art events across Houston. He’s written even more plays, including another about gun violence that was not only produced by his high school, but also at UH and for audiences across the country.  “A lot of good things happened to me outside of being incarcerated while I was incarcerated,” says Matthews, now a sophomore at UH. His future, he confidently explains, is onstage rather than behind bars.

Navigating life outside those juvenile detention facilities is a focus for CPAP. Walker, a lifelong arts activist, helps children address issues they face, including gang violence, HIV, sex trafficking, abuse, and poor diet, through the project. “It’s learning,” she says, “but it’s fun too.”

“The input we can have means they don’t end up back inside as an adult,” Muniz says, echoing a growing body of research showing a connection between arts education in prison and lower rates of recidivism. Muniz believes that’s thanks to kids learning to take control of their own lives. “You don’t have to be who your parents think you are, you don’t have to be who the school says you are. You can choose who you are,” she says. “That’s something they’re just not hearing.”

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