top of page
  • Prison Performing Arts



It’s been twenty years since we started working with justice-involved youth in St. Louis. As we’re running back and forth between the 4 different facilities we now serve, we’re slowing down and taking time to reflect on the history of our programs.

We have much more to celebrate than the 20-year milestone alone.

In some ways, our programming has changed drastically, but we’ve always kept the classes and workshops true to the original vision set by our late Founder, Agnes Wilcox.

We invite you to go back in time to twenty years ago, when our youth programming was born.

Fall, 1999 In the fall of 1999, Agnes Wilcox began teaching a series of acting classes part-time at St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center called I’m an Actor. Later that same year, we initiated Arts Alive! — a performance series featuring performing artists from the St. Louis area.

The classes brought a welcome change to the youth programming at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center; JDC for short. We started seeing the same transformation happening with youth as our other programs brought into the adult prisons. We knew then that youth programming was around to stay. But after 5 years, youth programming got a major makeover. 

Spring, 2005

When Rachel Tibbetts joined the PPA team in 2005, she teamed up with Nathan Graves at the JDC to start working on a project to revamp the program Agnes has started. I’m an Actor became Learning Through the Arts, which expanded the program’s scope to expose the youth to other art forms, including Capoeira, choir, creative writing, dance, West African drumming, Shakespeare, improv, and even robotics.

The program was (and will always be) process-driven; in other words, the focus of each class is never on preparing for a performance. However, Rachel wanted to give everyone involved—including the teaching artists—an opportunity to showcase the program to the outside community.

Thus, Winter Showcase was born.

Winter Showcase at the JDC

Winter Showcase is free public event hosted annually at the JDC. Anyone can attend—including family members.  “In keeping with the goal of avoiding the word performance, we try to encourage the teaching artists to incorporate themselves into the Showcase as much as they can, so the audience can see what happens in the classroom,” Rachel explains. “It’s an opportunity for the students to share what they’ve been learning in class.”

The Winter Showcase lends itself to spontaneity. Last year, a student learned to play “Silent Night” on the piano in a week and showed off his new skills at the Showcase.

The Future of Youth Programming

Over the years, the population of students in PPA youth programs at the JDC has steadily declined. At the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center, a pre-adjudication facility, the youth stay between 21-28 days—less than a month—on average. In the beginning, on average, between 80-90 young people came into the facility on a monthly basis; now, it’s down to 15-25.

“Youth are there awaiting the judge’s decision on what’s happening next,” says Rachel. “The waiting time for a court date has decreased, so population has, too.”

This change is due to the combined efforts of organizations like PPA and public servants, like Judge Jimmie Edwards, who served as circuit judge for the 22nd Judicial Circuit from 1992-2017.

Judge Edwards started a school, The Innovative Concept Academy, for students who have been expended or expelled from their own schools. It’s the only school in America overseen by a court system dedicated to the education and rehabilitation of delinquent teens. 

Judge Edwards also set The Detention Alternatives Program into motion. The program was developed to divert youth from the detention center while monitoring their activities in the community.

“You can’t put a price on the young people we’re serving; it’s more about the quality of the program,” Rachel offers. “And seeing the numbers decrease year over year is a testament to that quality.”

Join us in December—and bring a friend! We hope that you’ll join us in celebrating this historic milestone at this year’s Winter Showcase on Thursday, December 19th at 6:30 PM.

10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page