Arts benefit Christchurch Men’s Prison

27 September 2016
Hope, family, respect, trust and truth are among the words painted on the walls of Christchurch Men’s Prison by prisoners in the Youth Unit taking part in a new art programme.

A prisoner in the Youth Unit art programmeThe art programme has been delivered by tertiary provider SkillWise through its creative space, The White Room, since January 2016. The first six months was marked by the completion of artworks lining the walls of the Youth Unit’s visits hall.

It’s one of a number of art activities or programmes across the whole prison, including art therapy in the Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation Programme for high-risk, violent offenders and the Drug Treatment Unit.

There’s also a weekly general art class while the library provides opportunities for creative writing and reading.

Staff buy-in important

Maree Abernethey, Principal Adviser Rehabilitation and Learning, says staff are passionate about the value of the prison’s arts education programme, and their buy-in is important.

Art on the walls of Christchurch Men's Prison“Staff often come and say they want to brighten the walls of a particular unit,” she says. “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.”

Although arts programmes are described as a “constructive activity”, Maree says they also build new skills, develop team work, provide self-expression and a creative outlet, and inspire a sense of pride in the men.

Building a strong relationship between Christchurch Men’s Prison and the community is important, Maree says. Prisoners have contributed artwork to exhibitions and art auctions, giving them an opportunity to “give back”.

Copper horse sculpture One man created a two-metre-high sculpture, using copper pipe offcuts from a plumbing and gas fitting programme he was attending. The artwork was sold in late 2015, with the proceeds donated to the Salvation Army and Prison Chaplaincy Services.

Bev Lowen, co-ordinator of The White Room, oversees the Youth Unit programme and two art tutors work with up to ten young offenders. It has three main areas of focus: teaching skills through art, changing the physical environment, and encouraging continued engagement with the arts.

In the first session, Bev says, they used an exercise demonstrated by Shakespeare Behind Bars founder, American Curt Tofteland, when he visit Christchurch and spoke at the Creativity in Corrections forum in May 2015.

“It was about setting the foundations of the group,” Bev explains. “We asked everyone to think of someone important in their lives and then write down one word that summed up what that person, animal or hero meant to them.

“These words ended up on the walls of the unit and when new participants arrive, they also have to choose a word. Everyone who joins the group has to abide by those words. Hope is a huge word.”

Youth Unit participant feedback

Feedback from the participants includes:

  • “I never imagined I could do what I have done. Mine tells a story of hope. I’ve learnt different shading, transfer and painting techniques.”
  • “Art helps me release my emotions. Helps me get through my depression and clears my mind.”
  • “I feel motivated by the work I have done so far. I want to continue. The class has been good for me.”

Luan Smith, Interventions Co-ordinator, says the Youth Unit art programme enables the men to make a positive contribution to the prison. “Their pride really stands out and that’s reflected in their behaviour and attitude. Their art is a visual reminder that they can make a positive change.”

Building on skills post release

SkillWise runs courses in the community through The White Room, and hopes the young men will continue to build on their skills post release by attending The White Room.

Along with art displays in the prison’s visitor areas and the gym, the library features art, sculpture and macramé. It’s here that the men are encouraged to write poetry, songs or other forms of creative writing.

“We give them feedback and run competitions where selected writing is published in the prison’s internal newsletter and staff magazine,” Luan says. “From time to time, we publish their writing in a book. It gives the men something to aspire to.”



Arts benefit Christchurch Men’s Prison


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