Arts tell stories of hope at Christchurch Men’s Prison
5 July 2017
Hope, family, respect, trust and truth are among the words painted on the walls of Christchurch Men’s Prison by young offenders taking part in one of the art programmes operating across the site.
“I never imagined I could do what I have done,” wrote one of the participants in the Youth Unit. “Mine tells a story of hope. I’ve learned different shading, transfer and painting techniques.”
Another wrote: “Art helps me release my emotions. It helps me get through my depression and clears my mind.”
Maree Abernethy, Principal Adviser Rehabilitation and Learning, says staff at Christchurch Men’s Prison are passionate about the value of the prison’s arts programmes, and their buy-in is vital to its success.
Christchurch Men’s Prison received the Arts Access Corrections Leadership Award 2017 and judges commended its efforts in working with the community to ensure the arts were an integral part of rehabilitation programmes across the prison. “Clearly, the prison recognises the benefits of the arts to teach new skills, help change lives and develop pathways back into the community.”
Pride that shines
"Observing the development of the men and their artworks is an exciting and stimulating process for everyon", Maree says. “There’s a huge sense of accomplishment for the artists and staff enjoy seeing the pride that shines in their faces.
“Staff often come and say they want to brighten the walls of a particular unit. Or they’ll identify a prisoner they think would benefit from doing art.
“We try to provide art across as many units as possible and no one is excluded. We recognise the importance of having the arts as one of the subjects that can engage and benefit prisoners, and we cater for it in our annual budgeting.”
The arts programmes can have therapeutic benefits; improve problem-solving and adaptability; build leadership and team work; and increase confidence and self-esteem. For some men, their new skills can become a means of supporting themselves and their dependants when they return to the community.
Each stage of a project – the planning and process, the activity itself and the celebration – is considered of equal importance.
Celebrating arts in Youth Unit
A major focus of the art programmes over the past year is the development and celebration of the arts within the Youth Unit, which houses men between the ages of 17 and 20. Many of them have missed out on school and community arts education programmes, and lack confidence and communications skills.
The programme involves all staff in the unit, along with art tutors, community volunteers and providers. It’s resulted in a wide range of new opportunities and partnerships in the visual arts, music, drama and kapa haka.
The response from the young people has been outstanding, Maree says.
“We’ve seen marked improvement in their motivation and engagement. Staff have also noted improved communication and dialogue, more respect for themselves and others, and a sense of pride and pure joy at the success of their projects.”
Tertiary provider SkillWise and its creative space The White Room are contracted to deliver weekly art classes in the Youth Unit.
The community also comes to the prison. For example, a partnership between the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Pathways and Corrections resulted in a week-long programme in the prison, where 12 young men, many with no prior musical experience, had daily sessions to develop basic music skills.
They learned pieces for percussion and ukulele, and rehearsed as an ensemble for a performance at the end of the week.
Another partnership with education provider Te Wānanga o Aotearoa led to the first ten-week kapa haka course and the formation of a kapa haka group in the Youth Unit. The group showcased their newfound skills and talents at the CSO concert event, welcoming visitors to the site and performing waiata.
Other projects included the creation of a mural by the prisoners in the B Block high-security unit, while men awaiting trial or sentencing created a large wall mural depicting Christchurch’s transition from pre-earthquake to a new emerging city.
Art tutor Corina Hazlett and eight men in Kotuku Unit undertook a special art project to create a mural incorporating painting, carving and metalwork, to feature in the unit’s garden.
Thanks to these projects, Maree says, the look and feel of the prison units has been enhanced. The environment is better, and the positive interaction between the staff and prisoners has improved all aspects of prison life.
“The prison is privileged to work with dedicated and visionary art tutors, who explore our ideas and goals. Through their art, they transfer these ideas to prisoners and we have seen results that more than meet our expectations. This is what inspires the prison to do this work.”