New Zealand prison art findings in Australian research

16 June 2011

A creative arts programme that took place in Waikeria Prison in Te Awamutu is one of several international case studies cited in an Australian review of the philosophies and impacts of visual arts initiatives for inmates.

The report, called Art in Prisons, was written for Arts Access Australia by Alexandra Djurichkovic of the University of Technology in Sydney. Arts Access Australia aims to use the research as part of an advocacy campaign for further funding of art in prisons programmes.

Djurichkovic concluded that there is value in prison art programmes for educating, improving and reforming individuals, while contributing security and cost benefits to correctional institutions and, ultimately, to the society they will return to.

“Enjoyment and achievement in prison art programmes have been shown to result in a re-introduction to education for many inmates, stimulating them into pursuing further education both inside prison and upon release.”

American research by David Gussak found that inmates of a prison in rural Florida who were given art therapy services showed an increase in mood, an improvement in attitude and greater co-operation with the staff and their peers. The success reported in Gussak’s research led to the development of the state-wide Florida Arts in Corrections Programme.

First experience of a positive, absorbing activity

Contact with prison art programmes can give inmates their first experience of a positive, absorbing activity, and participation in such programmes offers a non-threatening way for inmates to demonstrate that they are engaging in educative or therapeutic programmes, Djurichkovic noted.

“Participation in art programmes can also help maintain and improve relationships between inmates and their families, as inmates use artworks to provide gifts or as a means to convey thoughts and feelings that may be difficult to express verbally.”

Djurichkovic also found that art is beneficial to institutional management. The need for disciplinary control can be reduced when artistic activities are available as an outlet for emotional ventilation.

“In the words of a prison officer working in an Australian prison with a comprehensive art programme, ‘Prisoners are easier to manage if engaged’. Even the possibility of creative activity has reduced inmate offences, as in programmes where inmates must conform to a particular level of behavioural standards in order to have the privilege of participating.”

Happier inmates are cheaper inmates

The cost benefits of prison art programmes include money saved on resourcing responses to self-harm, drug and alcohol use, suicide, and medication to alleviate mental illnesses and inmate distress. A study from the California Department of Corrections in the 1980s found institutions with prison art programmes produced savings of around $100,000 per annum. Happier inmates are cheaper inmates.

Displaying or selling artworks gives inmates the chance to engage in production exchanges with the community before and after release, which is an important element of any genuine rehabilitation.

Djurichkovic noted there were challenges to implementing art programmes. Prison art programmes are not widely accepted by government and corrective services decision-makers as having merit, rehabilitative or otherwise, she says. And alongside the government’s reluctance to fund programmes is a pervading socio-punitive attitude to “stop coddling prisoners” who don’t “deserve” art classes.

The idea that art has an intrinsic value for both individuals and the community is not understood; nor that art can be a means of providing people with generic job skills, or that creativity can change and heal people.


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