The American jail has a rich cultural history, with films such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile depicting the institution. They’re usually shown as brutal, dehumanizing environments filled with tough convicts and ruthless guards.

Who better to de-mystify prisons and the people who live within them than artists? “We’ve had this glorified TV version of what a prison is in America, and while it’s not a walk in the park, it’s also human in there – our fellow humans,” says Brian Roettinger, a graphic artist in Los Angeles.

The 44-year-old and his P–R Studio colleague, Willo Perron, 47, will appear as guest artists next month in California, teaching lessons to inmates in what Roettinger describes as “an opportunity to humanize them and maybe lend a hand to make the thing less scary and intimidating.”

The Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a university-based organization that provides an arts curriculum in 12 California state prisons, and Huxley, a worldwide talent agency, collaborated on the project.

Photographer Tyler Mitchell, American artist Sterling Ruby, British-trained fine artist Issy Wood, and cartoonist David Ostow are among the special guests. Scriptwriting and creative storytelling, cartooning and illustration, collage creating, and creative mindfulness will all be covered.

Perron and Roettinger, for their part, will begin teaching logo design and typography on December 10th. “We’re planning on everyone working together to rebrand the Prison Arts Collective,” Roettinger adds. “Thinking about how that logo and color palette could communicate, creating it as a traditional branding project, and going through the process and step by step on how we approach it.”

Over the course of 15 weeks, the guest artist program consists of 15 individual classes. The PAC will first teach the new curriculum in one jail before expanding it to a dozen men’s and women’s state prisons in California. Such work is a declaration of trust in the redemptive power of self-expression and the transforming power of art.

“The arts are a way to channel and deal with emotion,” Perron says, “and I think a lot of people who find themselves in these difficult situations have just reacted or didn’t have the outlets.”

“We all need a variety of outlets, ranging from treatment to the ability to communicate with others. The arts are a fantastic method to express everything from despair to happiness. This is to provide folks with one of the tools they may use instead of resorting to something potentially violent.”

The United States has the world’s highest imprisonment rate. Huxley asked the design pair about participating, and they quickly said yes, having previously collaborated with the rapper Jay-jail Z’s reform initiative.

“In this country, the things that need the most attention are probably healthcare and the prison system,” Perron adds. We’re designers at work, and we’re not in government or anything, but it offers us the chance to do something that will hopefully assist and advance things a little bit using our expertise.

“It’s people who get involved and have a sense of responsibility for what’s going on, rather than ‘This is where we throw our trash and we have no idea where it goes.'” This is how we deal with society’s problems: we lock people up and toss away the keys. And it’s clear that it’s not working, and we need to take a more serious look at it.”

“Society creates our problems, and society creates our criminals,” he continues. We’re all inextricably bound to one other’s choices. To believe that the easy answer is to put them up and ignore the problem is, at best, medieval.”

The non-profit PAC was founded in 2013 and now serves roughly 450 jailed people per semester. The reaction of detained participants has been extremely favorable, according to Annie Buckley, the organization’s founding director and a professor at San Diego State University, where it is based.

“People feel like it’s like an oasis for them within the prison,” she says over the phone, “where they can relax for a bit and just feel safe and relaxed in their space and creativity.” “We may take it for granted on the outside, but it means a lot to them.”

“The sense of connection is really strong: they’re connecting with a university student who’s coming in to teach them who they might not have met otherwise. It is incredibly significant to have that engagement concerning the arts via the classroom. Third, they must be able to create a positive identity around being an artist, a writer, or a student.”

Buckley recalls one participant telling her that his daughter now refers to him as “an artist” with her school mates, “which I thought was so powerful to be able to refer to that instead of whatever she used to say about her father being in prison,” according to Buckley.

Inmates ranging from those convicted of petty offenses to those serving life sentences are included in the program. “We don’t ask them why they’re there or what they’ve done because the point of our program is to help people change their identities and stop being known for the worst thing they’ve ever done.” It’s about seeing themselves as artists, students, collaborators, and peers in a creative, inclusive community.”

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.