“Hey Miss, where you from? Are you a artist? We neva see yous like that up here. You are out of town, eh.” These words came from a curious young guest when I checked into the only motel in Kaikohe.
The 13-year-old girl was living there in emergency accommodation with her mother and five siblings in a room that normally sleeps three. They shared the motel’s kitchen and laundry. She didn’t go to school.
Our many connections and conversations over the next few days made me mindful of how those dire situations do not help the increasing numbers within the Corrections system.
I was in Kaikohe to attend the Arts in Corrections Northern Region Network hui organised by Arts Access Aotearoa. The hui was aimed at Corrections staff and volunteers, Community Corrections staff, artists and writers, academics, the arts community, and people in the wider community interested in arts and social justice.
The next three days at Northland Region Corrections Facility were jam-packed with theatre, music, yoga, presentations, tape art and discussion about using the arts as a vehicle to create lasting change and send prisoners home to their whānau and communities as better people.
There is much happening at the Northland facility, which is leading the way with its Shakespeare Behind Bars theatre programme. I first learned about this programme three years ago at the Arts in Corrections forum at Auckland University where American founder Curt Tofteland spoke about the impact of Shakespeare in prisons.
I was totally absorbed in how theatre in prisons overseas is used as a tool for change. Why aren’t we doing it here? I wondered.
Shakespeare Behind Bars programme
Later, I learned that Beth Hill, art tutor at Northland Region Corrections Facility, had put Curt’s programme into action and in fact, the prison was celebrating its second anniversary of its Shakespeare Behind Bars programme.
For those of us at the Network hui, the group performed in a Shakespearean way the story of the parting of Papatuanuku and Ranginui – a very powerful experience that earned the group a standing ovation.
We were fortunate to tour the prison and were told about the site’s cultural history. The prison is small in comparison to Waikeria Prison or Spring Hill Corrections Facility, is in a rural setting and has the constant smell of thermal activity at Nga Wha, near Kaikohe. The “life skills” delivered include sewing and cooking, visual arts, music, creative writing, theatre and yoga.
I had spent a lot of time putting together a PowerPoint presentation about creative projects at Waikeria Prison and Spring Hill Corrections Facility, including the current Waikeria Whakatauki Garden project.
At the hui, I spoke about the various projects I’ve been involved in over the past two years, as well as my tape art project at Hawkes Bay Regional Prison. Landscaping projects are not the norm in a prison environment and they created much interest from the prisoners attending the hui. The visual diaries supported my presentation and were well-viewed over the two days.
Potential of a roll of tape
Tape art was an entertaining way to end the first day. A group of about 15 – prisoners and staff – engaged in a tape art wall mural that told many stories. A challenge for the group was to make a three-dimensional image on a 1D surface using 1D material. With a little tuition, they soon grasped the potential of a roll of tape.
The gratitude circle that ended the hui was an open, honest recollection of learning over the previous two days. The prisoners spoke of inclusion, not exclusion.
Lawrence Ereatara, Principal Corrections Officer at Hawkes Bay Regional Prison, and a group of the men performed a haka to Beth Hill, Jacqui Moyes of Arts Access Aotearoa and Simon Tanner, Assistant Prison Director at Northland Region Corrections Facility – the three people responsible for the hui’s success.
However, the strength behind it all came from the prisoners who joined us. They were our teachers.
As Simon said, “Without collaboration nothing will change. This event needs to be locked in each year so we don’t lose sight of the power of great ideas – and making things happen.”
For more information about the Arts in Corrections Network and how to join, contact Jacqui Moyes, Arts in Corrections Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa (T: 04 802 4349 E: firstname.lastname@example.org).