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Art in Prisons


An extract from Art in Prisons a review commissioned by Arts Access Australia and published by UTS.
Art in Prisons
The following extracts are from ‘Art in Prisons’ A literature review of the philosophies and impacts of visual arts programs for correctional populations by Alexandra Djurichkovic. The review was commissioned by Arts Access Australia to examine evidence for the value of visual arts programs in Australian prisons and their impact on adult inmates. It considers current philosophies behind art programs, how they are implemented and how ‘success’ is measured, and includes an annotated bibliography of relevant literature. From June 2008 to June 2010 the Australian prison population increased by 7% from 27,615 to 29,700 prisoners (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010). A 2003 study found 76% of inmates in NSW had recorded a psychiatric disorder compared with 22% in the general population. Commonly these disorders include psychosis, anxiety, affective disorders, substance abuse and personality disorders. For female prisoners, a Queensland study in 2002 found, 81% had post traumatic stress disorder, 75% had been physically or sexually abused and 39% had attempted suicide; 38% had drug related problems. It is in this context that the benefits of art programs for those incarcerated in prisons should be considered. This extract has been republished with thanks to UTS Shopfront, Arts Access Australia and Alexandra Djurichkovic. Please refer to the full report available to download at for all academic citations. THE VALUE OF ART IN PRISON There is an overarching tension within correctional services, as prisons are required to punish the offender while simultaneously reforming and providing social order (Belton
 & Barclay 2008, 7). A judgment handed down by the Victorian Court of Appeal in 2005 articulated this tension, stating that prisons are intended to achieve retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation (Kellam 2006, 16). The cognitive-behavioural rehabilitative strategies currently favoured in the western criminal justice system (see Clements 2004, 170-2, 177; Parkes & Bilby 2010, 100) ‘have yet to prove their effectiveness in reducing re-offending’ (Johnson 2008, 100), and in an international context of rising prison populations much of the focus is placed on housing the incarcerated instead of rehabilitating them (Iyer 2008). Politicians ‘pandering to a fearful public are getting elected for their short-sighted “tough-on-crime” band-aids’ (Kornfeld 1997, 77), and the consequence of this political populism necessarily entails severe punitive measures that deny prisoners ‘what [are] thought to be unwarranted privileges and amenities’ (Johnson 2008, 104), including opportunities for self-improvement through arts participation (Parkes & Bibly 2010, 99; Clements 2004, 172-3). There is thus a philosophical contradiction inherent in prison art programs, as the prison is punitive, but creative activities are very rewarding. Prison is intended to strip power and deliver pain; art empowers and delivers happiness (Johnson 2008, 115). Art activities in the criminal justice system are therefore an attempt to ‘reconcile the irreconcilable’ (Peaker & Vincent in McMillan 2003, 2). Within prisons, art activities are ‘provided within a range of theoretical frameworks, including an arts access model, arts education or art therapy’ (Hunter & MacNeill 2008, 1). The following sections are an attempt to theme key knowledge about prison art programs operating within these frameworks. Art is educational The opportunity to participate in creative expression through the arts can be a major factor in the success—or otherwise—of the rehabilitation and re-educative processes made available to inmates (Dean & Field 2003, 2, 4, 8; Clements 2004, 172-4). Education is integral to individual growth, contributing to one’s wellbeing and enabling improved life opportunities (Dean & Field 2003, 4, 8), yet many inmates have low education levels (Dean & Field 2003, 2, 5; Peaker 1997), further discouraging engagement with conventional learning models (Currie 1989, 32). Prison art programs provide a viable alternative for prisoners without basic education skills and/or low levels of literacy and verbal communication (Dean & Field 2003, 2; Johnson 2008, 102). Traditional education courses within prisons, such as basic numeracy or literacy, tend to provide ‘lowest common denominator qualifications that are unlikely to override the stigma of criminalization for prospective employers’ (Clements 2004, 173) so the availability of other means of learning is an important educational tool (Dean & Field 2003, 2, 4, 8). Additionally, they often remind inmates of their failure within the education system on the outside, with many engaging in the process only to ‘play the system’, not to learn (Currie 1989, 32). Art programs are distinguished by inmates as distinct from the authoritative system of one- way learning whereby the teacher teaches and the student passively learns (McMillan 2003, 4; Currie 1989, 33, 41; Durland 2002), as art teachers and artists are ‘regarded as being there to help, assist and guide the inmates in learning how to create’ (Currie 1989, 41). Art programs are further experienced as beneficial as they provide the participant inmate with a positive relationship that is not based around authority, one that also provides a link to the ‘outside’ world (Dean & Field 2003, 7). These qualities of art programs make them more accessible, absorbing and rewarding, and are therefore more likely to be taken seriously by the participants (Gussak 2007, 450; Clements 2004, 173). Enjoyment and achievement in prison art programs have been shown to result in a re-introduction to education for many inmates, stimulating them into pursuing further education both inside prison and upon release, whether it be additional creative education
or more ‘traditional’ types (Currie 1989, 97; Dean & Field 2003, 6, 8; Clements 2004, 174; Peaker 1997). The active learning inherent in art making is educational in its own right; it is important that art classes do not get lost in their instrumentality (Clements 2004, 173) where their merit is only measured in terms of their success in achieving criminal justice aims and targets (McMillan 2003, 2) or of the numbers of saleable artwork produced (see Dean & Field 2003, 6-7). Prison art programs offer multi-dimensional value, facilitating opportunities, not only for further learning, but also for recreation and vocation (Johnson 2008, 101)—providing both specific skills that open doors to creative careers as well as generic, transferable job skills (Dean & Field 2003, 6; McMillan 2003, 1; Peaker 1997)—and a rehabilitative, therapeutic learning of the self (Johnson 2008, 103-4). The creativity and new ways of thinking fundamental to art making are complementary to rehabilitative needs (Clements 2004, 173). These characteristics help to: produce active citizens and develop a critical attitude in them. Such a manner is necessary in order to examine lifestyle, but this cannot be foisted onto prisoners...[it] has to be their choice and discovery. (Clements 2004, 173, my emphasis) The satisfaction and empowerment inherent in the creative process (Heenan 2006, 182-185; Currie 1989 43-4, 81) has led, and will continue to lead, many inmates along journeys of continued education and self-improvement through arts participation (see McMillan 2003, 3-7; Johnson 2008, 115; Austin 2007, 1-2; Dean & Field 2003, 8; Peaker 1997). A study analysing the effect of a prison art program on participant inmates notes the fact that ‘a low achiever could be motivated to both learn and reflect through less formal teaching methods is an important finding’ (Currie 1989, 97). This demonstrates the link between creative education and personal learning, and personal learning and rehabilitation. Art is beneficial to the individual At a common-sense level it is apparent how prison art programs benefit individual participants: art is recreational and is enjoyable, particularly within the penal context of enforced and sustained deprivation (Johnson 2008, 103). Prison art programs are also beneficial to individuals as participation in educative or rehabilitative art programs is assumed to be more beneficial than non-participation (Gussak 2004, 252; Gussak 2009, 10). In fact, prison art programs provide numerous practical and psychological benefits that ‘strengthen cognitive abilities and help students integrate knowledge, feelings and manual skills’ (Johnson 2007, 72). Contact with prison art programs may give many inmates their first experience of a
 positive, absorbing activity (Dean & Field 2003, 2) and participation in such programs offers 
a non-threatening way for inmates to demonstrate that they are engaging in educative or therapeutic programs, allowing them the possibility of obtaining privileges or accessing parole (Benton & Barclay 2008, 8). Participation in art programs can also help maintain and improve relationships between inmates and their families (Benton & Barclay 2008, 16) as inmates use artworks to provide gifts or as a means to convey thoughts and feelings that may be difficult to express verbally (Johnson 2007, 71). Additionally, this exposure to a positive and productive experience that can be enjoyed as recreation can enable inmates to cope with the unemployment stretches that most will face upon being released. This benefit cannot be understated when considering those who carry the ‘stigma’ of ‘the formerly incarcerated’ (Clements 2004, 173; Peaker 1997). Engaging in prison art projects results in increased self-esteem (see Gussak 2004, 2007, 2009; Dean & Field 2003, 4, 8; Currie 1989, 44, 81). There is broad consensus within the literature that positive self-esteem is crucial to mental and social wellbeing as it influences choices, aims, goals and the ability to deal with life’s difficulties (Heenan 2006, 185). Engaging in the creative process has been shown to decrease depressive symptoms (see Gussak 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2009a; Benton & Barclay 2008, 19-20, 28; Currie 1989, 44-5) and provides inmates with the opportunity to construct and anchor an identity based around positive achievement (see Dean & Field 2003, 8; Currie 1989, 43-5; Schrift 2006, 273). Although prison culture does not permit any expression of weakness or depression (Currie 1989, 22-3), these feelings are pervasive (Gussak 2004, 246) and art not only alleviates them through enabling escapism from the immediate surroundings (Benton & Barclay 2008, 18-20), but also alleviates them through the very process of creation by externalising them and thus making them more manageable (see Austin 2007, 1-2; Dean & Field 2003, 8). The scope of the potential rehabilitation that can take place is, in large part, dependent upon the delivery of the specific program (Johnson 2008, 114). The anti-hierarchy, teacher-as-creative- facilitator model has received the most validation as the ideal way to implement art programs in prisons (see Currie 1989, 41; Iyer 2008; Dean & Field 2003, 7; Durland 2002). Not only is the expertise of artists and art teachers appreciated by inmates, but the non-authoritative connection to a ‘real’ person from the outside world is experienced as both valuable and validating (Dean & Field 2003, 7; Heenan 2006, 183). Prisoners are denied the opportunity to be responsible for ‘large portions of their life. The most obvious implication for prisoners is that they can become institutionalized’ (Dean & Field 2003, 3), so in order for dependency to be avoided, ‘prisoners need to be empowered to take some degree of responsibility over their daily lives’ (Parkes & Bibly 2010, 101). Art programs offer an engaging and humanising option for inmates to engage in the rehabilitative process (Peaker 1997; Austin 2007, 2). Many would argue that inmates do not deserve the escapism and enjoyment of ‘free’ art classes (see Durland 2002,; Kornfeld 1997, 77-8; Austin 2007; Peaker 1997). But as the vast majority of those imprisoned will be released back into the community at some stage, it is in the public interest to ensure that inmates are given opportunities to improve themselves and, upon release, are motivated to make a positive contribution to society (Dean & Field 2003, 9; Johnson 2008, 115; Peaker 1997). Art programs offers inmates ‘a way to take some control and responsibility in an environment that otherwise controls and directs’ (Dean & Field 2003, 3) and are a method of encouraging inmates to break the cycle of institutionalisation and recidivism that characterises the lives of many who enter the prison system (Austin 2007, 1). Art is beneficial to institutional management Beyond impacts on individual inmates, it is important that the institutional benefits of prison art programs are demonstrable to institutional management as managerial support is vital for a program to operate within a prison (Currie 1989, 5; Dean & Field 2003, 4, 6; Schwadron 2009; Argue, Bennett & Gussak 2009, 314). The literature articulates a number of benefits that ‘serve a managerial function by improving the quality of life for both prisoners and staff’ (Johnson 2008, 108). Firstly, the need for disciplinary control can be reduced when artistic activities are available as an outlet for emotional ventilation (Benton & Barclay 2008, 27; Day & Onorato in Johnson 2008, 106). In the words of a prison officer working in an Australian prison with a comprehensive art program, ‘prisoners are easier to manage if engaged’ (Benton & Barclay 2008, 27). Even the possibility of creative activity has reduced inmate offences, as in programs where inmates must conform to particular level of behavioural standards in order to have the privilege of participating (Currie 1989, 48; Johnson 2008, 108; Zolberg 2001, 3097). Therefore: as a management tool, [prison] art programs can reduce violent behaviour and harmful stress [to staff] and the financial costs of responding to such matters (Johnson 2008, 106). In addition, the cost benefits of prison art programs includes money saved on resourcing responses to self-harm, drug and alcohol use, suicide, and psychotropic medication to alleviate mental illnesses and inmate distress (Gussak 2006, 189). An important, early study from the California Department of Corrections in the 1980s found that institutions with prison art programs produced a saving of around $100,000 per annum (quoted in Brune 2007). Happier inmates are cheaper inmates. Counter-intuitive as this may seem, the promotion of art programs in prisons, thus, sits happily within a capitalist discourse of resource efficiency and profit maximisation as benefits for the inmates result in benefits for the security and cash flow of the institution, ultimately benefiting tax-paying society (Andriello 2009). Art is beneficial to society The prison population constitutes ‘the socially and economically disadvantaged stratum of society...caught in vicious cycles of deprivation, substance abuse, social and psychological dislocation, and alienation from the wider values of society’ (Kellam 2006, 18). Further, ‘contrary to the ideal that it is possible to achieve rehabilitation in prison, imprisonment actually induces negative changes in the individual’ through a debilitating environment that ‘only makes inmates worse, more filled with hate, violence and anger’ (Currie 1989, 30; 31).
 It is therefore important to have enjoyable, expressive and reformative activities available— such as prison art programs—that serve as a counterbalance to the pervading negativity and hostility of the prison environment (Currie 1989, 97; McMillan 2003, 6; Dean & Field 2003, 1). It is common practice for institutions operating visual arts programs to offer opportunities for inmate artwork to be displayed or sold (see Schrift 2006, 260-2; Dean & Field 2003, 6-7; Iyer 2008). Displaying or selling artwork gives inmates the chance to engage in “productive exchanges with the community before and after release” (Johnson 2008, 107), which is an important element of any genuine rehabilitation attempt of the incarcerated as: While a prisoner is often out of sight and out of mind it is wise to remember that the vast majority of prisoners will eventually be released back into the community. Surely, it is more cogent to release people who have become better people, who can be productive and useful members to society. We need art-based prison programs to contribute to the sustained development of human dignity...Their voices are ignored or excluded from the community’s larger social conversations...this act of expression and reflection can act as signal to the community that they are part of it. If they achieve this then art-based programs must help towards the successful re-integration of prisoners and the ultimate reduction in re-offending (Dean & Field 2003, 9). Though it may be easy to demonise those who have been imprisoned, it is important to not only advocate for their essential ‘humanness’, but to also advocate for opportunities for ways to heal and improve it, so that all of society is happier and safer (Austin 2007, 2). ‘Art in Prisons’ A literature review of the philosophies and impacts of visual arts programs for correctional populations by Alexandra Djurichkovic is a report produced for Arts Access Australia in the UTS Shopfront Student series of occasional monographs published by UTS ePress and supported by the CAMRA cultural mapping in regional Australia project. For more details visit

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