The arts and creative expression are powerful tools in supporting the rehabilitation process of prisoners and their reintegration back into the community on release, because tapping into incarcerated people’s creativity offers them hope.
I had no idea of any of this before I started researching the subject of mass incarceration in preparation for my discussion with Steven Matthew Clark on Breaking Brave.
Inmate arts programs provide benefits to both the inmate participants and to the prison administration.
Plus, arts programs pay for themselves in reduced cost for correctional staff and for vandalism.
For people in the criminal justice system arts and media can be invaluable tools for empowerment, improved mental health, and positive change.
Studies have shown that engaging with arts, culture, and media improves behaviours inside prison walls and upon release in the general community, including compliance with criminal justice orders and compulsory regimes.
Evidence from the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance indicates that arts projects are effective at improving in-prison behaviour (such as compliance with rules and engagement with the regime) and individual psychological factors (such as depression and a sense of purpose). They also found definite links between the arts and increased self-control and problem solving.
Restorative justice through lifelong learning.
There is a particularly transformative value in creative education for adults who have faced hardship and barriers – because art, design, making and creativity are known to enhance people’s mental health, empowerment and opportunities.
Creative education can be extremely significant to neurodiverse individuals who do not do well with traditional forms of education. In such cases, it can support mental wellbeing as well as social mobility.
In short, design and creativity can create positive change for people who have previously been marginalised.
Prisons who offer art programs release people back into the world who are more stable, and far less likely to return.
Regardless of age, gender identity, or time served, those prisoners will become more likely to complete an education in prison, and much less likely to commit another offense after release.
Art has been shown to connect with prison populations in a way that traditional therapy sometimes cannot, and the effects ripple outward to create a more effective prison, and ultimately, a safer society.
Within the prison system, programs that promote higher education and drug treatment are recognized as effective for reforming convicted criminals. But sadly, the arts remain overlooked and underfunded as a rehabilitation tool, despite persuasive data …
68% of participants in the California state program Arts in Corrections say that making art has lowered their stress levels and made them happier.
64% have experienced reduced racial tension in arts classes.
In one study of art therapy in Florida women’s prisons, more than 75% of participants said the classes helped them deal with upsetting memories and past traumas, likely connected to the reasons for their incarceration.
And then there are the results that can’t be measured but are undeniable — like the capacity of the arts to give prisoners back their humanity.
“You’re talking about an environment where any type of disclosure of weakness and vulnerability and need, can be taken advantage of by others,” says Gussak*.
“But art allows us to work behind the mask, allows therapy to happen, allows expression to happen and identity to reform without challenging that notion of dominance.” *Professor Dave Gussak is a leading researcher on art therapy in prison populations.
“We’re working in environments where the inmate populations are objectified and dehumanized, and they’re given numbers and uniforms to keep them under control,” says Gussak. “The problem is once they get out, they maintain that label of ‘inmate’ or ‘former convict,’ and that’s the identity they need to live up to.
Creating art helps prisoners to see past their immediate experience of incarceration and re-imagine themselves as something more than criminals.
The creators of these arts programs often spend months or years in bureaucratic purgatory — dealing with proposals, contracts, and security clearances before they even get through the gates.
But increased awareness of prison arts, and the benefits they can offer with even minimal resources, means that more doors are opening … rather than being closed and locked!