Many people end up in prison after living chaotic, desperate lives. They have often been abused or been abusers; they’re mostly unemployed, often with neurodiversities or traumatic brain injuries; and victims or perpetrators of domestic violence. They’ve often had bad experiences of education or violence, and are usually traumatised.

And prison itself is traumatising: court appearances, searches, screenings, tests, interviews and always hypervigilance. Can’t let your guard down. Can’t trust anyone. And the noise! It’s always noisy: clanging, banging, shouting.

Plus there’s the worry of what you’ve left behind: tamariki, girlfriends, debts, jobs, houses, pets, friends. And an overarching feeling of shame, desperation, stupidity and fear.

In such an environment, how is healing possible? How can we foster desistence? And how can we get people to reimagine different, better lives for themselves and for their whānau?

Education is a powerful tool and most of my role is focused on securing educational opportunities for people in prison. I’m the President of the Australasian Corrections Education Association and I’ve seen firsthand the transformational impact of education.

Research tells us that engaging people with education can help reduce recidivism rates by up to 40 per cent and increase the likelihood of employment on release from prison.

I am excited about the potential of a pilot programme that Otago Corrections Facility is running with the University of Otago, where two papers will be taught in person at Otago Corrections Facility next semester. You can read more about this

Imagining themselves as a university student

Education drives that transformation of identity from “prisoner” to “learner”. I’ve talked to people in prison who tell me they sit down with their textbooks, face the wall at their “desk” with a cup of pens and pencils, and they imagine themselves as a student in a university dorm. For those hours, they are no longer a person in prison but an eager learner with a bright and hopeful future.

And men have also told me how they want to help their tamariki with their homework, thanks to what they’ve learned.

But the sad reality is that we can’t reach everyone in prison with education. For some, the thought of literacy and numeracy classes is too much, too shameful. Previous negative experiences with education can also make it too painful. Short sentences, prison transfers, court appearances, segregation, health appointments and court-mandated programmes might all mean that someone is not eligible for formal education within the prison walls.

I believe that arts in our prisons can help reach those people who education can’t reach for whatever reason and help begin the healing.

Helping to turn around lives through the arts

I believe with my whole heart that engaging people with the arts can help turn their lives around. I see that it works in a number of ways. These are just some of them:

Arts drives a change in identity: Current theories of desistence suggest that people need to see themselves in another way for them to desist from crime. The arts allow people to see them themselves not only as someone in prison but also as a creative being with agency and value. For Māori in prison, it can involve connecting or reconnecting with their culture, crucial for prosocial change. Arts instructors, tutors and artists also model prosocial relationships and help people learn how to communicate appropriately with others.

Engagement with the arts is therapeutic: A lot of research has been done on this topic. Participating in creative endeavours can alleviate physical, emotional and mental health disorders. The arts can get something out of your head, allowing you to externalise it and deal with it. It can allow examination of a topic or situation from a slightly altered point of view. It gives a person the freedom to stop thinking about it. Those feelings and anxieties are stored safely somewhere else.

Everyone can engage with the arts: Unlike with traditional education, everyone can start engaging with the arts straightaway. There are no prerequisites. You don’t need a minimum level of competency before you start. You can just start wherever you are: beginning, middle or advanced. This is in contrast to most formal education offered in our prisons.

You don’t need much time: An education qualification can take ten, 12 or 17 weeks. But to pick up a pencil and write a poem or story can take 15 or 20 minutes, a couple of hours, or a week. Bigger projects obviously take longer but projects can be as long or as short as they need to be.

You may not need many resources: A pen or pencil, a sheet of paper and some guidance or encouragement may be all that is needed to start a poem or story, or to begin a sketch. More complex artworks require better resourcing but little is needed to begin. Plays and other performances just need a lot of enthusiasm, someone to corral that enthusiasm, and some space.

The arts humanises people in prison: As people in prison pour their angst, emotions, hope and resilience into their artworks, creative writing or performances, people on the outside can see what makes these people human. They can see the transformation of someone from prisoner to citizen. It stops the “othering” of people in prison and allows them to join or rejoin society as valued community members.

As I started writing these reasons why people in prison benefit from engaging with the arts, more and more reasons started popping into my head. All I can say to you is that the benefits are greater than just those I’ve listed here.

This makes it even more important we find ways for our people in prison to engage meaningfully with the arts in its myriad forms. The benefits to those in prison are indisputable but the benefits to our communities are greater still.

Dr Farley was Practice Manager Education and Training – Southern Region, Department of Corrections until late June 2022. Her new role is Associate Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury.


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