The benefits for offenders participating in visual art projects, inspired by experienced practitioners, can be many. Theatre and movement can also provide additional tools for prisoners seeking a hopeful, productive future.
This was very evident to me when I had the privilege of attending Reflections, the open day at Spring Hill Corrections Facility’s Puna Tatari Special Treatment Unit. Puna Tatari is indeed a reflective place. The treatment programme, managed by Principal Psychologist Paul Whitehead and Principal Corrections Officer Jimbob Gregor, provides an opportunity for intensive personal review and rehabilitation through counselling and creative activity.
Art tutor Ann Byford has led a creative process in Puna Tatari, which gives added meaning to the internal process and provides a pathway forward for prisoners. The prisoners have engaged in designing outdoor contemplation stations on a contemplation walkway; a reflective sundial garden; external wall panels; and a massive mural representing the issues uncovered on the way to self-knowledge, recovery and new beginnings.
Prisoners lead tours
The open day on 12 February included insightful tours of projects, led by prisoners who had participated in the projects. Taking ownership of a creative project is a step that allows a prisoner to take pride in the result, and provides the opportunity to share insights into the project’s purpose, inner meaning and symbolism.
These skills are increased and practised through participation in art projects. I had many take-away moments from the tour but the one that will stick with me was hearing from the two prisoners responsible for designing and painting the large external wall mural. This depicted the issues and challenges that the men face, and led to the peaceful place of rehabilitation and recovery.
The two men were from different gangs and would normally be adversaries. Through this project, they worked co-operatively and developed their creative talents to produce a major artwork. They also uncovered a mutual bond of understanding and respect.
Facilitating high-quality outcomes for prisoners
Corrections staff, who enable these projects to take place alongside other therapeutic programmes, facilitate high-quality outcomes for prisoners. Here, they can feel proud of their achievements and grow as creative, self-aware men.
At Arohata Prison in Wellington an equally exceptional event was held on 21 February to showcase the results of a very intense project using drama, movement and music undertaken by the prisoners in Arohata’s Drug Treatment Unit.
A special thanks to Goethe-Institut New Zealand for enabling German theatre practitioner Uta Plate to return to New Zealand and deliver this valuable workshop.
Working with the 16 women undergoing the Drug Treatment Unit’s six-month programme, Uta led a team of local artists to explore and uncover issues of the prisoners’ personal journeys to recovery and rehabilitation.
Theatre skills and production elements such as music, costumes, mask and poetry gave the participants a wide range of experiences with which to develop new skills.
Performers' commitment to support each other
Sitting in the audience of this immaculately rehearsed performance, I was impressed by the commitment of the performers to support each other through many complex and sophisticated performance elements: for example, maintaining concentration using a mask, sound scape and disciplined body movements to convey emotions over long periods of time. But they did it very well.
Above all, the work conveyed the many issues these women confronted on their common, yet individual journeys of recovery.
The pride, improved self-confidence and delight in their achievements were evident and backed up by Arts Access Aotearoa’s evaluation conducted after the week-long workshop.
They were supported to this result by the energy, commitment of many hours and talents of local artists who brought their skills such as music, performance, digital sound composition, visual art and dance.
These local artists now become part of a national resource – a network of artists ready and experienced to deliver meaningful arts projects in prisons. The staff of Arohata Prison and the Drug Treatment Unit did an exceptional job supporting this project. They were also justifiably proud of what the women had achieved.
Finally, for people in Auckland, Mairangi Arts Centre provides an opportunity to see some great artworks and carvings by prisoners in Northland Region Corrections Facility. Mairangi Arts Centre’s seventh annual exhibition of prisoner art, called InsideOut 7, runs from 9 April to 8 May.