Arts and education in New Zealand prisons was the topic of a 30-minute video, presented by Arts Access Aotearoa at the 14th International Australasian Correctional Education and Training Conference, held online over 16 and 17 November.

The video featured a panel of three Arts in Corrections leaders – Beth Hill, Rue-Jade Morgan, Kristie Mortimer – facilitated by Richard Benge, Executive Director of Arts Access Aotearoa.

“Our experience is that participation in arts and cultural opportunities increases literacy and numeracy, develops new skills, strengthens identity and definitely improves attitudes,” said Richard Benge in his introductory remarks.

Richard highlighted three areas of the arts delivering educational benefits in New Zealand:

  • quilting classes at Arohata Women’s Prison and Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility
  • creative writing programmes, including Youth Arts New Zealand’s Te Kāhui creative writing programme and the Write Where You Are group
  • model marae built at Hawkes Bay Regional Prison as part of an employment course at Hawkes Bay Regional Prison, where men gain practical carpentry and joinery skills.

Access to culture a right, not a privilege

First to speak was Rue-Jade Morgan, who lectures at Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin and facilitates Te Hōkai Manea Tipuna programme at Otago Corrections Facility. He spoke about the fact that access to your culture is a right, not a privilege.

“Culture in a nutshell is about identity,” Rue-Jade said. “It’s about the ways and customs of particular groupings of people. It’s a means by which people can connect to community, to loved ones, and of course to a sense of themselves …

“So culture and the way I've delivered it in my programme thus far has allowed the participants I come across to have a voice, to be validated and to be heard, and then hopefully moving them along their path to rehabilitation and then reintegration into our communities in a safe and positive manner.”

The value of peer mentoring

The second speaker was Beth Hill, Redemption Arts and Education Service at the Northland Region Corrections Facility.

“Creative and cultural programmes can set the foundations for further education pathways to be built on,” Beth said.

Beth spoke about peer mentoring at Northland Region Corrections Facility and said it was a big part of its successful education stories. “Many of our Tuakana Teina mentors are recruited through the visual arts and performing arts programmes. This speaks volumes to the benefits of creative interventions. Our mentors advocate for cultural, education and rehabilitation programmes, and support their peers through unit activities, one-on-one tutoring and study groups … ”

In conclusion, Beth said: “We need to make prisons more creative and harness the power of the arts and culture as a vehicle for change.”

Taking off the masks

The third presentation was by Kristie Mortimer, a dance educator with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Kristie has a PhD in dance studies and teaches dance in Corrections facilities, something the ballet company has been doing for more than five years.

“There is one comment that always sticks with me and it’s from when I was teaching at the Otago Corrections Facility last year,” Kristie recalled. “One of the men said to me: ‘During this dance class it felt like we were able to take off our masks, and just be ourselves for a bit’.

“This comment for me I think really shows the value, especially in the context of Corrections facilities, where men and women are having to navigate elements of control and confinement, as well as various social dynamics and even their identities.

“And yet they could come into the space, which in this case was a gymnasium with a dance class happening inside of it, and engage in moving their body in a positive way, and do this collectively with others.”

The video concluded with an excerpt of a performance by women in Arohata Women’s Prison, who had participated in the Royal New Zealand Ballet workshops and then performed in Arohata’s Matariki concert in August.

Video highlights role of arts and education in prisons


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