Art Program in Detention Allows Youth to Express Difficult Emotions

by Clara Colmenero

PHOENIX (November 1, 2023) – Using a paintbrush and diving into their creativity, youth in the Maricopa County Juvenile Detention Center are transforming a blank canvas into healing art.

The Juvenile Probation Department, part of the Judicial Branch of Arizona in Maricopa County, started a collaboration with Young Arts Arizona in 2002 and since has empowered thousands of youths to achieve their full potential through artistic expression.

“This 21-year partnership with Young Arts has been a highlight for the Juvenile Court and Detention,” said Deputy Juvenile Court Administrator Derrick Platt. “When it first started, we had art teachers come into detention and do art sessions. It slowly transitioned to detention staff facilitating and having main themes. The themes were based around healing and sharing. This is a great way that detention youth give back to beautifying their community and working through their trauma.”

Twice a year, a Young Arts Arizona teaching artist instructs detention center staff in various forms of artmaking with a variety of materials. Then detention staff facilitate art workshops on an ongoing basis with kids in detention.

“Juveniles are learning about the power of self-awareness and our artistic youth are not only given the opportunity to hone in on their art skills but also learn about networking, time-management, and profitability,” said Juvenile Detention Officer Yaneth Marchena. “When the day comes, they are prepared, with sketches in hand. The youth are quick to mention how happy they are to get off their units and work on their craft. Additionally, they are ecstatic when they learn a new technique. Most importantly, I’ve heard youth participating in these workshops quote our guests to other youth in the facility. It’s rewarding to hear that our youth are learning from these workshops and feel so confident about what they learned that they share it with others.” 

The Young Arts Program serves about 200 kids in detention annually. Over the 21 years the program has been in operation, it is estimated to have served over 4,000 youth in Maricopa County.

“Our teaching artists are deeply compassionate to the children’s circumstances. They are dedicated to helping children release their creative spirit and express themselves through art,” said Young Arts Arizona Deputy Director Alicia Keenon. “It serves as an antidote to a life full of challenges and stress. In the detention centers, staff facilitate the art-making process, and that method has proven very successful throughout the years.”

Youth participants proudly work on their artwork anticipating forming part of a public exhibition created by their peers. Once the art projects are completed, a Young Arts curator selects the art pieces for exhibition and frames them. The installations rotate through 15 galleries and are seen by over 200,000 people. The galleries are not only located in Maricopa County Juvenile Court but in buildings in the Pima County Juvenile Court, Young Arts’ Papp Gallery, Arizona Opera, Revzen Atrium, Arizona State Education Board Room, Read on Arizona and Phoenix Little Theater.  

“Making art has a healing and rehabilitative effect for these children. They can see themselves positively as creators and exhibitors of art and not only as product of their circumstances,” said Keenon. “This program is called the Art of Inner Freedom, which indicates that though the kids are momentarily detained, the hope is they will find their internal and external freedom through the healing properties of artistic expression.”

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