The power of language in prison

25 November 2011

In a recent prison arts e-news, Arts Access Aotearoa presented an article about writer and former prisoner Casper Walsh, who teaches writing in the British prison system. While creative writing is considered one of the most accessible artforms to deliver in prison, it is also one of the least utilised artforms in New Zealand prisons. This month, we profile the thoughts of the late American poet and writer Grady Hillman, who first became involved with arts programmes in corrections facilities when he did a creative writing residency in Texas Prison in 1981.

In the following interview with visual artist, writer and author Steven Durland, Grady talks about the benefits of arts programmes, including creative writing, for prisoners.

SD: Times are tough. How do you justify arts-in-prisons programmes?

GH: There's always that argument: “Why should we support these programmes? This is taxpayer money and we could be spending that money on other programmes. These guys in prison need to be punished.”

But California, Oklahoma and Massachusetts have come up with documentation that shows that when you bring an arts programme into an adult correctional setting, it reduces the incident rate – everything from stealing steaks from the commons area to stabbing other inmates – by 60% to 90%. You can document this readily because there’s a high degree of surveillance and observation. Those programmes were able to document the radical rate of personal transformation within the institution.

California quantified that on a cost basis and found that arts programmes in prisons not only paid for themselves but also provided significant savings for the institutions ... It is actually saving you, the taxpayer, a lot of money …

California did a seven-year recidivist rate study and found a dramatic drop in the recidivist rate of these inmates [who had participated in arts programmes] after they left prison, compared to the general prison population. These people did not commit crimes when they got back into the free world. Something really profound had happened to them in the prison setting that transformed their behaviour. So you can also make the argument that you're reducing crime on the outside by bringing these programmes in …
Ninety-five percent of the people who go into prison come back out. And how do you want them to come back out? Do you want them to be bitter and angry and hostile? Or do you want something in place that maintains their humanity and keeps the human side alive? This is the most compelling argument.

SD: What are the benefits for the artists doing this kind of work?

GH: The one thing I got out of my prison experience is the power of poetry. Working in the free world – writing poems, going the artist path, publishing in magazines, talking to other artists – was about craft more than anything else.
And then I started working with inmates, for whom the creation of a poem was the most important thing in their life – to get it right. They taught me the power of language and the power of poetry. So I came out of the prison experience a much stronger writer, a much more careful writer. They gave me that … They showed me how powerful poetry could be.

SD: What kind of artist does this work? What are the necessary skills?

GH: Art therapists have their role to play in society and art teachers have their role to play. But the model that I promote, the model that I think is the best, is the professional artist and the artist-mentor relationship: the master artist.

When I look for an artist to come into a correctional setting, I generally look for someone who's good and has proved themselves in the free world. As visual artists, they've had exhibitions; as a writer they've published books. You're providing somebody to this population who, by their own standards, is real. They see you as a model. What they want from you is to show them what you do. They want somebody who will give them feedback on what they do. They want a professional standard. They want to know how good they are. And they want to know what they need to do to get better.


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