Cook Co. Jail program lets inmates learn photography, creative writing, etc.

FOX 32 NEWS - They’re serving time, but also making the most of their time behind bars.

A unique program at Cook County Jail gives inmates a sampling of skills ranging from photography to creative writing.

Inmates at the Cook County Jail, performing in a drum circle, display a skill which most of them never had before they ended up behind bars. Samuel Vaughn's doing time for delivering drugs.

“Never played the drums, but you know, they always say, we got a little rhythm, so I was able to play a few beats,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn and the others have graduated from an eight weeks fine arts curriculum, which is part of the jail's Mental Health Transition Center.

“The ultimate goal of the Mental Health Transition Center is to reduce recidivism, so we're trying to give them the tools necessary for them to transition back into the community, to be productive members of the society, so that they don't end up back in our custody,” said Dr. Dena Williams.

The inmates are all non-violent offenders with mental health issues. After introductory classes in social skills and problem solving, they move on to photography, advertising, Drum Circle, and creative writing, including some rapping and performance skills.

Research shows the artistic programs offered here significantly reduce anxiety and depression among inmates, while increasing their self-esteem.

“My self-esteem has went from here to here. Because we have teachers and doctors here, also, who show us that there is a better way than the way that we've already been traveling and going,” said inmate Mark Bell.

Bell is doing time for possession of heroin. He's been in the Mental Health Transition Program for nine months.

“When I see somebody that used to be doing what I’m doing, but they have now graduated and are  teaching people at a program like this, it motivates me to let me know that I can also do it also,” Bell said.

For inmates who complete their sentences, there's even an alumni association so they can keep in touch if new needs arise.

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