10 June 2014

Teaching an art class in Christchurch Men’s Prison was definitely one of the least expected routes that my background in fine arts and art history could have taken me in. But then, as one of my high school art teachers used to remind us, “Fine arts gets you jobs you never knew existed.”

Art tutor volunteer ElizabethToo right! Volunteering at the prison has definitely been an eye-opener and it has dismantled many of the preconceived notions I realise I had about correctional facilities and inmates.

For those of you who have never ventured off the West Coast Road at the blue-signed turn off, the grounds of Christchurch’s main prison might indeed seem very strange.  The entrance road to the main car park winds around farmed and recently forested paddocks. In a way, this seems like a very out-of-place setting for a prison, especially if your prior experiences of prisons surmount to episodes of Prison Break and Orange is the New Black.

The inside of the prison, however, is a lot more in keeping with its mediatised institutional image. The interior spaces seem hospital-like and impersonal. In my first experiences inside the prison, I remember feeling more intimidated by the architecture and the almost-familiar corridors than by the inmates themselves.

Art programmes in Corrections facilities are part of larger rehabilitative efforts to provide positively structured environments where inmates can have normalised interactions with volunteers and tutors.

Wide-ranging benefits of art classes

The value that art classes have for prisoners can be difficult to quantify as the benefits are wider ranging than just the output of produced artwork. Many countries around the world have adopted art programmes into their correctional facilities, including the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Collage work by Elizabeth, used with the prisoners New Zealand has become a model for the introduction of art programmes into other corrections facilities around the world, such as in South Africa. Beyond the volunteer co-ordinators and programme facilitators in the Department of Corrections, Art Access Aotearoa is a great organisational support for the continued implementation of these programmes within New Zealand and globally.

In the unit where I’ve been teaching, both prison officers and the inmates themselves have expressed support for the art classes. Both groups see the classes as a “chill-out” time for the inmates.

From the officers’ point of view, this provides a group of individuals who are easier to work with and manage. And from the inmate’s point of view, the class breaks up an otherwise mundane and sometimes depressing week.

Encouragement to behave well

Inmates are allowed to attend the class if they have demonstrated an interest in art and have been behaving well. This encourages them to act positively during the week so as to be able to continue attending the class.

Prisons are divided into units. Separate units have different dynamics going on – or as one inmate said, it can be more Mean Girls than Fight Club. At my level, these differences are reflected in the structuring and teaching of an art class. For instance, classes taught in areas where inmates are closer to the end of their sentences, and where there is more rehabilitative intervention, have a lot more freedom over which art materials can be used.

Thinking about art-making in this context has been challenging for me.

Since I began last year, one of the most rewarding aspects of the volunteering has been experiencing the inmates’ new enthusiasm for art and their own art-making practices.

Different art skills

Some participants come into the class with a plethora of different art skills while others have had little or no experience in art-making. For the latter, it’s quite an achievement to finish a class with the ability to paint a landscape or portrait.

Beyond any technical achievement, though, the space of the art class creates a community of individuals who are interested in art. It is a safe place where they are given some control over what they can do: many of them work on personal art goals and projects.

In this environment, inmates are connected by their common goals to make art and not by the crimes that they have committed. In my opinion, this gives participants the opportunity to re-imagine who they can be and what they can do post-prison.

It must be remembered, that at some point many incarcerated individuals will finish their sentences and be on the other side of the bars. Gaining technical skills and evidence that learning goals can be achieved provides inmates with the building blocks to deal with problems such as a lack of jobs, which they will likely face when they’re released.

There are many different ways that inmates can be supported while inside prison and teaching art is just one way to help the rehabilitative process.  

Elizabeth is a student at Canterbury University and volunteer prison art tutor. This article will be published in the university’s Law Society publication, The Obiter. 

Art on the inside


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