Roni Burkes-Trowsdell is seen as a leader in creating arts opportunities for inmates.

Roni Burkes-Trowsdell, the warden of Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, “truly gets” the potential of arts programs in prisons to help inmates emerge from incarceration better than they went in, says Jessie Glover, director of the Ohio Prison Arts Connection, a coalition dedicated to supporting arts and community connections for inmates. Burkes-Trowsdell, the subject of a feature profile in the February issue of Columbus Monthly, is one of nine Ohioans selected to receive the 2019 Governor’s Award for the Arts, which will be given at the May 15 Governor’s Awards luncheon.

“Throughout Roni’s 18-year tenure with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, it has been apparent her inner drive is fueled by her passion for people,” according to an announcement released by the Ohio Arts Council. “Roni has chosen to lead and support diverse projects that aim to increase access to the arts for those who are justice-involved around the state.”

Under Burkes-Trowsdell’s oversight, ORW, the largest women’s prison in Ohio, welcomes 900 community volunteers into the prison on a regular basis, many of whom assist inmates with arts-related programming. They include weekly visits from members of the Harmony Project, who sing with inmates in a prison-based choir overseen by Harmony Project director David Brown, as well as theater programs, writing classes and a jewelry-making initiative. In 2015, singer Melissa Etheridge performed a concert for inmates inside the prison.

In 2014, Glover brought a group into ORW to perform “Rachel’s House,” a play created from the words of women transitioning from prison, before 500 inmates. After the performance, she says, hugs and tears were shared. “There was a real sense that we’d told a lot of people's stories or helped them think about their own story. … I don’t think that you can overstate the power of that, of having a sense that your story or stories like yours are worth telling.”

“Warden Burkes has not just cultivated a culture that includes the arts as an important contributor,” adds Glover, “but has also built relationships and built trust with artists and other folks in the community who want to contribute to the flourishing of people who experience incarceration.”

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