Art therapy with men in Auckland Prison

27 June 2019
Māpura Studios is an art studio/creative space in Auckland for people living with diversity and adversity. Its kaupapa is “Changing lives through creativity”. Early in 2018 Simon Chaplin, Assistant Prison Director at Auckland Prison, contacted Diana McPherson, Director of Māpura Studios, and began a creative discussion. This resulted in the Department of Corrections engaging Māpura Studios to deliver the first formal group art therapy programme in a New Zealand prison.

Artwork by participant in the art therapy programme in Auckland PrisonSally Legg, arts therapist and clinical lead of the Māpura programme, designed the art therapy programme at Auckland Prison to be encouraging and to offer mental wellbeing benefits. The aim is to help the men in the group find new direction and inspiration by allowing the subconscious process to guide the work, and navigate the diverse emotional landscapes that are part of our collective human experience.

Margaret Feeney tutors the accompanying art studio programme at Auckland Prison and is also the co-ordinator of the Corrections programmes for Māpura Studios. The sessions are all one-and-a-half to two-hour weekly sessions over eight to ten-week modules.

To date, Sally and Margaret have delivered two art studio modules and two art therapy modules. “We love working with Diana, Simon and the rehabilitation team at Auckland Prison,” they say. “Together, we feel we are making positive change to the culture and people of Auckland Prison.”

In this interview, Sally and Margaret respond to questions asked by Arts Access Aotearoa

Q. In a nutshell, what is art therapy?

A. Art therapy is a personal journey through the creative process that offers insights into our personal stories through metaphor and symbolism. It explores themes of identity, culture, myth and archetype.

The art therapy space is a non-judgemental, confidential environment where participants can make meaning through a series of short creative exercises that open up windows into the world of the imagination. Sharing is welcome to whatever degree people feel comfortable.

Q. Why do you believe art therapy is suitable for prisoners?

A. The therapeutic direction of the programme is around identity building, and establishing a positive narrative for each participant so they can grow in confidence.

Artwork by participant in the art therapy programme in Auckland PrisonThe aim of this approach is to offer them greater resilience and the inner resources to examine and redirect their lives. We don’t focus on deliberately unpacking and exploring any historic offending, as there are a number of other programmes with this specific goal. However, participants can voluntarily share certain aspects of their experiences if something arises. 

In the prison setting, art therapy can also help participants address difficulties in managing sensory overload and triggers. A major component of this work is the acceptance and validation of difficult emotions, and a creative outlet for their safe expression. 

The recognition and processing of personal trauma and the restoration of mana through the therapeutic relationship of the group have been pivotal turning points in the healing process for participants who have completed the programme.

Within the short time we have together, the sessions build a meaningful flow of development and a sense of transformation, consolidation and closure for the participants.

Q. What are some key benefits you have observed for the men since you started the programme?

A. Learning safe ways to access, express and process difficult emotions and past trauma is one of the key benefits. The creative process can offer a doorway into personal inner worlds, where participants can examine their life stories and personal development in their own ways.

Artwork by participant in the art therapy programme in Auckland PrisonThe sessions also provide an established time and place to escape from the triggers and challenges of routine prison life, and find meaningful engagement. They also provide a sense of achievement through completing the creative process.

Other key outcomes include:

  • sensory engagement with the materials
  • trust in the facilitators
  • respect for culture and the restoration of mana
  • inspiration to continue their creative work and explore their personal narrative
  • an emerging positive and meaningful vision for their futures
  • a deep understanding of the value of art therapy.

Q. What are some of the men’s responses?

A. We receive regular positive feedback in the sessions. One participant recently remarked that the non-verbal nature of art-making means he can directly express what he’s feeling and experiencing – things that he’s often unable to put into words. 

Another said the work he does in the art therapy sessions is more meaningful and contains more emotion than the well-crafted and laboured pieces he is used to making in his cell.

Q. How do you evaluate the effectiveness of the programme?

A. At the end of each module, we invite Simon Chaplin and members of the rehabilitation team to meet with the men. It’s a really good platform for the men to give feedback, and share their thoughts and ideas.

Each session of the module is carefully designed with goals and outcomes. We are constantly evaluating the effectiveness of what we do, using measurements such as attendance rates and levels of satisfaction; reduction in unacceptable behaviour; and levels of engagement.


Art therapy with men in Auckland Prison


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