The cinderblock walls are warmed with cheerful blue paints, softening the sense of containment and control that the long hallway evokes. But our steps are quickened by the impulse to dance along to a rhythmic pulse emanating from the activity room up ahead. A drum circle is in session, and it’s filling the hall with vitality and music.

We are in the Ventura County Juvenile Justice Complex in Oxnard, or the JCC, visiting one of several arts programs offered to incarcerated young men and women through the Arts and Juvenile Justice (AJJ) Program. The Ventura County Arts Council (VCAC) works with Ventura County Probation Agency and the Ventura County Office of Education to bring professional artists into the facility to provide education services in music, painting and poetry that also foster healing, self-expression, self-esteem and social bonding.

Recently, the AJJ program received special recognition as a model program chosen for case study research by the Centers for Research on Creativity and the California Arts Council (CAC), a funder through its JUMP StArts grants. The combination of “exemplary work” on the part of the VCAC and the “positive advocacy and support for the work” on the part of Probation make the program “a great model to inspire work for others,” says Josy Miller, Arts Education Program Specialist for the CAC. The AJJ program is a unique synergy between the wholistic approach to juvenile rehabilitation that the probation department has taken and artists’ ability to share the healing and transformative powers of their craft.

Gina Johnson, chief deputy of the Juvenile Services Bureau for Ventura County Probation, explains that they capitalize on the time they have with the youth by furthering their formal education and exposing them to new possibilities. The arts also offer therapeutic and social benefits. “Art is a means to express one’s emotions, thoughts and ideas,” continues Johnson, “the hope is that they see art as a positive outlet for their trauma” and that they will “find a connection with some art form that they will have for the rest of their lives.”

As we step into the classroom, six young men — Edie, Angel, Fernando, Ernest, Steven and Rudy, ages 16-18 — beat out strong music on African drums. Led by musician John Lacques, the music moves between a dynamic unified jam, call-and-response and solos. Lacques, a professional drum circle facilitator, says that he uses these dynamics in all his circles to encourage participants to both take risks and to support others.

In this drum circle, the boys are holding each other up. When one falters in his solo, others call out, “Keep it going man, keep it going!” Fernando shares that, in solos, “you get self-conscious, but you want your mind to go blank, so it motivates you to keep the ball rolling.” Steven empathizes, saying that he encourages the others because “I don’t want them to feel awkward, I don’t want it to be awkward for anybody.” Angel says that “This is better for us, not just in here drumming, but out in the unit,” and another chimes, “ Yea, we bond together!” “I’ve never done this with any of my friends on the outs,” Rudy reflects. “I’ve never gathered up with all my friends on the outs just to go play some drums, you know what I mean, to get active like that.”

The drum circle has fostered community, camaraderie and healing for incarcerated youth taking part in the Arts and Juvenile Justice Program. Photo by Brittany Lambert

This is the essential goal of the innovative programming offered at the JJC — to help youth imagine new possibilities. As Supervising Deputy Probation Officer Andy Souza puts it, “Our focus is rehabilitative, not punitive.” The arts program helps expose the youth to ideas, concepts and outlets that “give them insights they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.” The youth recognize the uniqueness of the programming. “When I think of juvenile hall, I thought we would just sit in a room, come out for meals and go back in,” says Steven, “but playing the drums and guitars, learning how to do origami or poetry — I never knew none of that.”

The arts have transformative powers. For Lacques, drumming is a way to get really present and surrender to creativity. “Drumming is instantaneous meditation,” he explains. “You hit the drum and it reports back immediately, demanding an instinctual response to repeat or to change or to react to that sound, and you follow that instinct, beat by beat by beat.” Student Fernando confirms the state of mind that the drumming induces: “It lets you be free, it lets you relieve all that stress and anxiety you’re going through the whole week. Being able to let it all out on the drums, you know, feels good.”

For Michael Spota, a guitar teacher in the program, “Music is a vehicle for learning about choice . . . My goal is to let them know there is a creative force within them and they can choose to access it or they can choose destruction,” he shared in a phone interview. His students may learn rock and roll, Latin music, pop, old-school rhythm and blues or mariachi. But underneath the training is a drive to empower them with self-knowledge. One of the ways he accomplishes this is by having his long-term students teach the newer ones. “The best way to learn is to teach,” he says, “but it also gives them a sense of validation that you can see — you can see their chest stick out, you can see their pride.” This is powerful for incarcerated kids who may be riddled with shame from lives shaped by violence, addiction and desperation. As Souza says, “These kids have short lives with long stories, and sadly, this may be the safest place for them.”

Making music has had a powerful and positive effect on these individuals. Edie says that originally he “thought we were just going to sit here and bang a bunch of drums.” Instead he discovered the instrument’s dynamism. Stroking the surface of the drum in front of him, he says, “I never knew one drum could have so many different tones. I never knew these things could look so beautiful too.”

For more on the Arts and Juvenile Justice program, visit the Ventura County Arts Council at