Like most people and organisations around the country, Arts Access Aotearoa has been dependent on digital technology over the past three months to maintain communications and connections.
Many of us flocked to Zoom to host meetings and group chats to check in with loved ones not in our bubble, and to cloud servers to access files in the comfort of our own homes.
Digital technology enhances our ability to communicate and work remotely – something the disabled community has been wanting for a long time.
People in prison have also been advocating to be able to use digital technology in prisons. Since the beginning of the lockdown, there has been limited communication between prisoners and the arts community. This has impacted on arts programming, leaving many artists in prisons to develop their practices in isolation.
At Northland Region Corrections Facility, arts mentors who had been through the Tuakana Teina peer mentoring programme stepped up and kept some of the arts activities happening throughout Levels 4 and 3.
Tuakana Teina mentoring programme
As tutor Beth Hill says in the story Arts mentors step up in Northland prison, “I was worried about what would happen when I wasn’t there but I found I could go away for two months and come back and there’s all this incredible work that has been done. Everything ticked along really well without me. It helped me realise that I don’t have to do so much. The mentors can take on more and I don’t have to be quite so busy all the time.”
Beth would like to see more prisons running a Tuakana Teina mentoring programme.
Regardless, is it time we looked at reducing the restrictions of internet access for prisoners? How would that look? What are the benefits and the issues of having internet access available on sites?
We discussed these questions earlier this month at the Arts in Corrections Network’s first online hui. The panel included Dr Rand Hazou, Senior Lecturer in Theatre at Massey University, Albany; John Sinclair, National Manager for Prison Programmes, Howard League for Penal Reform, Auckland, and Bronwyn Bent, arts producer/programmer, Flock, Auckland.
The discussion covered lots of ideas on what internet access could look like for arts programmes. John Sinclair believes internet access could offer video calling for people in prison and their whānau, regularly touching base as a way to combat isolation. Seeing the faces of loved ones could have profound effects on their mental wellbeing.
The benefits of internet access for arts programmes
Internet access could enable art facilitators to work remotely and continue their arts programmes even during lockdown situations. It could also enhance communication between art tutors and prisoners outside of class times.
How amazing it would be if we could share arts information and resources provided by the community with people in prison. It could revolutionise the way we see prisons and how they function.
Rand Hazou agreed with the importance of enhancing communication but was wary of distance learning replacing face-to-face learning. When it comes to the performing arts, it’s important that people are working in a space together, he said. This allows for people to respond to each other’s bodies and gestures – something you can’t do via Skype or Zoom.
Other panellists thought that a mixture of both could be beneficial. Prisoners could have contact time where they could do group work and then develop their individual practices with remote learning.
Need for boosted IT infrastructure
During the discussion, the panel also highlighted the need for boosted IT infrastructure to enable reasonable access to the service.
At the Auckland South Corrections Facility, there is a computer in most cells with an individualised portal login. Prisoners can message their tutors via a chat function, and upload videos and sound files.
This meant that Anthony Cribb, Arts and Cultural Facilitator, continued his arts programmes even through the lockdown. Auckland South is a private prison and has a separate set of regulations.
Investment in new technology to allow greater digital access would be costly but I hope it wouldn’t be a barrier to this happening across our prison system. If we are to equip prisoners with the necessary reintegration skills, then upskilling them in the use of digital technology is important.
Digital access is a contentious issue because of privacy, the vital importance of protecting victims of crime, and the risk of misuse.
Last year, a collaborative trial programme used interactive learning materials designed by Māui Studios to teach graphic art and design. The materials were loaded on to secure computer tablets and Māui Studios worked with a UK-based app development team, Socrates 360, to ensure the tablets met the security requirements of Otago Corrections Facility. You can read more about this innovative trial programme in Creativity and digital skills in Otago Corrections Facility.
I welcome your thoughts about the role of digital technology in supporting the mental health and rehabilitative process of men and women in our prisons. Please contact me on 04 802 4349 or send me an email.