Oral Histories

Interview of Deborah Tobola

Writer, poet, educator, and founding Artistic Director of the Poetic Justice Project.
Arts in Corrections: Interviews with Participants in California Department of Corrections' Institutional Arts Program
UCLA and University of California History
Community History
UCLA History: Events and Projects
Biographical Note:
Writer, poet, educator, and founding Artistic Director of the Poetic Justice Project.
Aoki, Kyoko
Tobola, Deborah
Persons Present:
Tobola and Aoki.
Place Conducted:
Tobola's home in Santa Maria, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Kyoko Aoki; MLIS, UCLA.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Tobola was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content. The corrections made were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
1 hr. 20 min.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The interviews in the series Arts in Corrections: Interviews with Participants in California Department of Corrections' Institutional Arts Program document the stories of formerly incarcerated artists, professional artists, and administrators who participated in the Arts-in-Corrections program. Arts-in-Corrections was a California Department of Corrections program that placed professional artists in correctional institutions across the state to provide incarcerated men and women instruction in a variety of artistic media, including the visual arts, theater, musical performance, creative writing, and poetry. The program spanned three decades from 1979 to 2010. The oral history interviews were conducted as part of the interviewer's master's thesis research and then donated to the Center for Oral History Research. Archival materials related to the Arts-in-Corrections program are available at the UCLA University Archives and the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive.
Born in San Luis Obispo, CA -- Father attends Cal Poly on the GI Bill and works at the prison part time as a guard — Early background in literature and theater —Visiting the prison cafeteria as a child —Conducts poetry workshops with at-risk youth and homeless youth and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault -- Gravitates towards using the arts as a transformative tool — During high school, tutors kids who are emotionally disturbed, for whom English isn’t their primary language, or who are slightly mentally disabled -- During college, volunteers to work with students in a continuation high school -- Starts a program called Poetry for People that sends poets to nursing homes, mental health facilities, and groups working with domestic violence and sexual assault survivor groups—Puts on conference The Life of a Poet Developing a Social Conscience — Attends graduate school at the University of Arizona, where one of professors, Richard Shelton, teaches poetry in prison —Moves to Tehachapi, CA after receiving MFA -- Hears that the best writing teaching gig is at the prison -- Is hired to teach creative writing at California Correctional Institution (CCI) -- Also works at North Kern State Prison in Delano for 4-5 years —Prefers teaching creative writing in prison to teaching composition on the outside —Describes first time inside prison and the first class — Structures class to accommodate a transient student population -- Role in classes is more like that of a midwife who helps birth poems—Differences between student populations in and outside of prison — Varying literacy level of students in prison -- Racial make-up of participants in AIC compared to racial make-up of prison population as a whole — Atmosphere at prison in Delano -- Becomes an Artist Facilitator at CMC in 2000 -- Performances at the prisons -- AIC participants' community service work – Community projects decrease after the Community Resource Manager position is eliminated in the early 2000s -- The Artist Facilitator's responsibilities -- Balancing being a professional artist and an administrator --Hires inmates to participate in artistic activities and assist with day-to-day functions of AIC -- Schedule as an artist facilitator -- Opportunity for participants in AIC programs to walk in the door and leave the posturing behind -- Listening to a young, white inmate-worker and an older black man watch President Obama get elected – Waning support for the Artist Facilitators as the budget gets tighter and thinking behind rehabilitation changes – Absence of arts programs outside the prisons to send paroled prisoners to -- Leaves CMC at the end of 2008 and begins Poetic Justice Project (PJP) in Santa Maria, CA -- Departing CMC meant AIC was terminated at the prison – Difficulty of leaving prisoners without creative outlets – Unsustainability of a system in which so many people are locked up -- Difficulties that arise when PJP participants are asked to put their own agendas aside for the common good – Participants commit to stay clean and sober while participating in PJP -- People in AIC come to be like family -- The power of AIC and PJP is the power of having a community that is a safe place to explore oneself – Outreach for PJP – Vision for the future of PJP -- PJP performances throughout California -- AIC was the premiere arts instruction program in prison in the world and cost a fraction of what most things cost in prison -- Looks forward to a day when people will see the power of the arts to transform their lives.