Research on the impact of performing arts in prisons


27 February 2020
Amanda Coleman, the recipient of a Fulbright US Graduate Award, will be undertaking research in New Zealand to produce what will be the first formal evaluation of the performing arts programmes in Otago Corrections Facility and Northland Region Corrections Facility.

Amanda ColemanAmanda is in the final stages of gaining approval for her research. Hosted by the University of Otago’s Department of Sociology, Criminology and Gender Studies, Amanda will interview prisoner participants, prison staff and group facilitators about their views on the value and impact of performing arts on prisoner rehabilitation.

She will also undergo cultural supervision with Dunedin organisation A3 Kaitiaki Ltd to help ensure her research is conducted in accordance with kaupapa Māori values. 

“The programmes at these two facilities have attracted a lot of positive attention and their success has been affirmed anecdotally,” Amanda says. “However, I hope my research will result in a robust picture of the impact of these programmes on their participants.”

At Otago Corrections Facility, Amanda will work with drama tutor and actor Ruth Ratcliffe. For the past six years, Ruth has been facilitating a weekly drama group using the “forum theatre” technique. Read more about Ruth Ratcliffe’s award-winning drama group

Participants in the Redemption Performance Arts programmeAmanda will also visit Northland Region Corrections Facility in the Bay of Islands where she will learn more about the impact of its tikanga-based Redemption Performing Arts programme, facilitated by arts tutor and educator Beth Hill. Read more about the Redemption Performing Arts programme

Chris Ulutupu, Arts in Corrections Advisor at Arts Access Aotearoa, welcomes Amanda’s visit and her research project.

“Those of us working in the Arts in Corrections sector know that the arts can have a positive impact on prisoners’ wellbeing and rehabilitation. That’s because we are constantly seeing it in action and hearing feedback from participants.

“There’s also plenty of international research providing evidence on the benefits of performing arts as a rehabilitative tool but this New Zealand research will add enormously to what’s already available.”

Arts Access Aotearoa will invite Amanda to Wellington for Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards later in the year, and to attend the Arts in Correction Network meeting to take place the day after the Awards ceremony.

Alliance for Community Empowerment

Amanda has a masters degree in social work from California State University, Northridge. In 2016, she joined the Alliance for Community Empowerment (ACE), a  grassroots not-for-profit organisation in Canoga Park, California. It offers young people a second chance at success. She is its Director of Counseling and Support Services.

“Many of the young people we work with are just being released from incarceration or are at risk of incarceration,” Amanda says. “Seeing the transformative power of art in their lives inspired me to do this research.”

She was also inspired by her colleague. A local artist and former gang member, he joined ACE as a volunteer mentor, and is now employed to work with the community’s young people and their families through art and mentorship.

She chose New Zealand to conduct her research partly because of the Department of Corrections’ focus on rehabilitation and partly because of the similarities between American and New Zealand prisons.

Similarities between two countries

Both countries have among the highest incarcerations rates of OECD nations, Amanda says. They share similar pre-trial detainee rates, jail occupancy levels and two-year recidivism rates.

In addition, indigenous populations are over-represented in the justice systems of both countries, and African Americans, like Māori in New Zealand, comprise about 15% of the total population but about half of the prison population.

Amanda will return to California in November where she hopes to use what she learns in New Zealand and see how it might be applied at ACE.

In addition, she plans to share her findings with California State University, Northridge so that social work students might apply what she learns to their practice.

“I will also be reporting back on the research findings to the Department of Corrections before I leave New Zealand,” she says. “I hope the work will be useful in adding to their knowledge about the rehabilitative value of the arts and if it leads to further evaluation, I‘d be very happy.”

Research on the impact of performing arts in prisons


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