Surya Gowda: Incarceration & rehabilitation through art

Gabby Kepnes, Staff Writer

Surya Gowda (12) combined her interest in art and the knowledge she acquired from the school’s history elective Voices of Protest (VOP) to design her independent study on incarceration and rehabilitation through the arts.

In VOP, Gowda wrote an essay about the incarceration of African American men and decided to further research this topic for her independent study project, she said.

Ms. Sheryl Baker, who works in the school’s technology department, suggested that Gowda focus her project on incarcerated men from “Rehabilitation through Art” (RTA), a program Baker is involved in, Gowda said.

“The organization’s motive is to help the inmates rehabilitate through art whether it be writing, drawing, or painting,” Gowda said. “This gives them the life skills to go back into society and work on improving themselves.”

Gowda divided her project into four segments in order to stay on track throughout the school year. For the first quarter, she focused specifically on incarceration in America, she said.

“I looked at understanding systematic oppression and the source of why we have such high numbers of incarceration in our country compared to other countries,” she said.

In the second half of the first semester, she shifted her research towards rehabilitation of prisoners, she said.

“How are we helping these people who are being incarcerated to return back into society instead of going to prison again?” she said. “In America, recidivism rates are over 60%, which is disturbingly high.”

Gowda’s advisor, English teacher Rebecca Bahr, meets with Gowda on a weekly basis to help her plan presentations, Bahr said.

“My mom has been involved with a NGO that provides prisoners with pen pals, and my brother teaches a writing workshop for teenage girls in the middle of their sentencing,” Bahr said.

The majority of Gowda’s research entails reading books about her topic, such as “New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, and watching documentaries such as 13th.

For her first presentation, Gowda curated a gallery to showcase paintings made by prisoners, she said.

“The paintings these men have created show how talented they are,” she said. “Even though they’re known as felons, some of whom have murdered people, they’ve created these pieces using their emotions to help them rehabilitate.”

William Golub (12), a student in Gowda’s Independent Study class, thought it was interesting to hear about the organization’s motives and to see some of the work done by prisoners, he said.

Gowda’s presentations demonstrate how important it is to invest in people who have been convicted of crimes, Bahr said.

Gowda hosted a Unity Week workshop where she introduced Charles Moore, a previously incarcerated man who was a part of the RTA and now works with the organization, she said.

She wants to draw attention to the people who are known as “bad guys,” and for people to realize the amazing things they are capable of creating, she said. Through programs such as RTA, prisoners are able to create art or write stories, which will help them gain fundamental skills to become involved members of society once they are released from prison.