Sunday, November 01, 2009

art therapy in prison

Creating Safer Prisons Through Art
By Amanda Doerr

Originally written April 24, 2007

The first questions many people have in regards to art in prison are probably along the lines of: “Why should we make life easier for these convicts?” “They’ve broken laws and now we’re going to let them play?” “Why should our taxes go for such a program, when there is so many other things we could fund?”

The best answer to these questions comes from Ed Howe, the activities manager at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, who says "[Art] also keeps us safe. If prisoners have idle time, they find their own recreation." (Menees, 2001) This is not a good idea by any stretch of the imagination. If some of these people had healthy outlets for their boredom, they would not be incarcerated in the first place. They are in prison because they are unable to function in a conventional social environment. (Gussak, 1997, p 1) Case in point, convict Jeremy Pinson spent his time in prison planning revenge and writing threatening letters because he didn't have anything else to do, adding more and more time to his own prison sentence with each threat he mailed. (M. G. Preisz, Oklahoma City University Forensic Psychology lecture, April 17, 2007) This is not an isolated incident. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons also found in their research that "few conditions compromise safety more than idleness." (The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. [CSAAP], 2006, p 14)

Art's effect on violence

Can art actually affect the level of violence? According to the 1983 California's Brewster Study, inmates participating in AIC [Arts In Corrections] at two state prisons had fewer disciplinary problems. (Menees) In one institution, the reduction of disciplinary reports written was 80%. (Gussak, p xix) How much violence could art reduce nationwide? Unfortunately, not enough data about non-lethal violence is available to properly assess the costs of violence to the prison system. Some facilities keep no record at all of the assaults within their walls. (CSAAP, p 15)

Art can help in several ways. Crafts often build self-control within inmates, even those uncomfortable with drawing and painting. (Hall, 1997, p 32 and Milligan, 1997, p 181) Creating expressive art can help an inmate avoid a confrontation by giving him a way to work out his anger. (Hall, p 33) If the means are available and conditions favorable, aggression can be channeled through the creation of physically demanding three-dimensional objects. (Ronaldson, 1997, p 179) Releasing emotion can be problematic in a prison environment, for it can either be considered threatening or a sign of weakness to both guards and other inmates. Inmates who engage in art making are less disruptive, having less of a reason to act out. (Hall, p 39) This was true whether the art was created in an art class or in isolation in a cell. (Taylor, 1997, p 200)

Art also works with mentally ill inmates. Board Certified Art Therapist, David Gussak, one of the editors of Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings, has "seen examples of nearly every DSM IV diagnosis" while working with prison populations. (Gussak, p xv) The sad reality is that there are still people being sent to high security prisons, who pose no threat to the populace, simply because they are mentally ill. (CSAAP, p 16) Art is a powerful tool for dealing with depressive symptoms while incarcerated, though not as much anxiety symptoms, possibly because heighten states of anxiety are needed for survival in prison. Still, art helps the mentally ill inmate cope better with his situation. (Woodall, 1997, p 116)

Making art safely

There are no total guarantees in life, not even with art. Safety must still be maintained. Scissors, long pencils and paintbrushes can be weapons in the hands of a determined inmate. Clay can be used to make a key or disable a lock. For these reasons, many normal art making supplies are not allowed inside many prisons. (Ursprung, 1997, p 18) Even common art solvents such as turpentine can be forbidden because of the potential risk they can pose. (Menees) Art therapists and facilitators in prisons have discovered many alternative sources of art supplies, often through the ingenuity of those under their care. Found art is common, but other art media might include: foil potato chip bags, socks, hair, nuts, Kool-aid and M&M candies as pigments, magazines, cigarette wrappers and a mixture of toilet paper and soap, which when "mixed with water and combined in the right consistency" becomes a modeling paste that can easily be painted. (Ursprung, p 19 & 21) One inmate grew his hair for five months in order to make his own paintbrushes. (Dobnick, 2006) Through much of the literature on this subject, the need to create in a hostile environment is commented on again and again. (Ursprung, p 17)

And on their own, therapists and facilitators come up with ways around the restrictions. While making masks is usually prohibited because they might aid in an escape, Gussak's solution was to have the inmates make masks with paper plates that couldn't possibly resemble a real face, thereby allowing him to still use a very powerful art therapy technique. (Gussak, p 69) He also taught the inmates to create Plaster of Paris three dimensional works that not only could be accounted for after the session (thus satisfying the fear that it would be used on keys and locks), but also created an art experience in which inmates had no expectations of seeing a recognizable form in, eliminating feelings of inadequacy based on their art skills in most of those participating. (Gussak, p 63)

Even when normal art supplies aren't used for dangerous purposes, care must be taken so they won't be stolen. Art supplies are a valuable commodity in the prison black market because they are means to earn goods and services from other inmates. Portraits, handmade stationary, posters, and decorative objects are often purchased as gifts for loved ones on the outside and for personal use. (Hall, p 36 & 37)

Art and guards

The relationship between guard and inmate depends on a great many variables, not the least of which is the managing culture of the prison they are in. Because of their duties, prison guards and other staff can and do affect how art is created in their institutions. They can't stop it completely, but they can help or impede its creation.

Positive staff involvement can bring about significant results in a prison arts program. It can even generate inmate sympathy towards the correctional officers, as evidenced by an inmate at Folsom State Prison, who said that even the guards didn't need any more negative publicity. Even as far back as 1930s, the connection between the guard and the guarded can be shown, when "a convict named Ralph Pekor painted 'The Last Supper' in the prison chapel . . . The warden loved the fresco until he realized the convict had painted him as Jesus, the inmates on condemned row as the disciples, and, for good measure, tucked himself in underneath the table." (Menees)

Jung once said "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances. If there is any reaction, both are transformed." Whether this transformation is a positive or negative one depends on the correctional staff more than the prisoners, since they, by their position, hold most of the cards. In a positive manner, staff may become involved through helping in the display artwork in shows that help breakdown the stereotypes of incarcerated people. (Ursprung, p 15) In addition, prison staff may buy inmate artwork, allowing their own prejudices to be dispelled through the admiration of the creative works and giving the inmates a means for purchasing more art supplies. (Ursprung, p 21) The effects of this transformation can be far reaching, even across generations. A Sing Sing guard who encouraged and helped an inmate artist to sell works which allowed the artist to send money to his family even in his incarcerated state, was survived by his daughter, who even now tries to find the descendents of this prisoner so she can give them some of his artwork. On her living room wall is a portrait of her mother, done by the same artist and it is obvious from her interview that she, too, has respect for those her father used to guard. (NYCHS, 2007)

However, not all prisons have a culture that is conducive to positive staff involvement. In those, it is advisable to not have guards in the actual art room, since it may inhibit the inmates. (Hall, p 28) In some correctional institutions, officers may be so paranoid that they feel threatened by the images and either react with alarm or belittlement towards the inmates' creative expressions, further dehumanizing them. Even with paranoid reactions from prison staff, art therapy specifically can help inmates by its ability to allow an inmate to work out issues on a nonverbal level, beneath the radar of those who might otherwise be threatened by inmate expressions. However, this requires the art therapist to allow the staff to continue to see the art as benign and simplistic. (Gussak, p 60 & 61)

Based on the results of the positive staff interactions in several institutions, it seems possible that by carefully involving the prison staff in the display of a public exhibition of prisoner art, a highly strained and possibly abusive atmosphere could be affected in a beneficial way for both staff and inmates. It would have to be done in a manner which would not create resentment on either side and require a great deal of patience on the part of the person managing these events. Such an individual would do well to read Gussak's chapter "The Ultimate Hidden Weapon: Art therapy and the compromise option." in Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings for advice on how to survive in the destructive dyadic relationship between staff and inmates that exists in some prisons. Changing the atmosphere of an institution does not happen overnight. It takes a lot of work and diplomacy.

A possible theme for an inmate art show that would be relatively benign, yet still beneficial to the inmate artists, the staff and the community, would be to have inmates create images of local historical interest. An elderly inmate at a Pennsylvanian correctional facility decided on his own to do such works, which were then put on display in a local mall. His works not only gave him a reason to research the history of the town, but gave other seniors outside of the prison something to talk about and engage their mental processes with. (Wisker, 1997, p 236) We talk about criminals paying their debt to society, what better way to do this than to educate people through their art, while grounding them in the very community most of them will eventually be released into?

This would, of course, be only the start of the art journey for an institution which has no positive art program history to draw from. It is hoped that eventually in these institutions, art could be done in a freer fashion, allowing both sides to benefit from it. As the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons states, "We must create safe and productive conditions of confinement not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it influences the safety, health, and prosperity of us all." (CSAAP, p 2)


The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. (2006, June). Confronting Confinement. Retrieved April 21, 2007 from

Dobnick, V. (2006, December 10). In prison, art supplies are likely to be coffee, candy. Associated Press. Retrieved April 18, 2007 from

Gussak, David E. (1997). A Brief History. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. xv - xx). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Gussak, David E. (1997). Breaking Through Barriers: Advantages of art therapy in prison. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 1 - 12). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Gussak, David E. (1997). The Ultimate Hidden Weapon: Art therapy and the compromise option. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 59 - 74). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Hall, Nancy (1997). Creativity and Incarceration: The purpose of art in prison culture. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 25 - 42). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Menees, Tim, (2001, September 30). If not art, then what? Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Retrieved April 7, 2007 from

Milligan, Nancy (1997). A Barbed Wire Garden: Art therapy in a maximum security prison for adolescents. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 175 - 186). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

NYCHS [New York Correctional History Society]. Fine Art Behind Bars. Retrieved April 19, 2007 from

Ronaldson, Claudia (1997). The Lucky Ones: Probationary students in a special education school. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 167 - 174). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Taylor, Marcia (1997). Growing Old the Hard Way: Art therapy as an intervention in gerontology and criminology. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 197 - 209). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Wisker, Carol (1997). What One Museum Does for Prison Art. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 231 - 239). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Woodall, J., Diamond, P. & Howe, A. H. (1997). Art Therapy in a Managed Care Environment. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 99 - 126). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.

Ursprung, Will A. (1997). Insider Art: The creative ingenuity of of the incarcerated artist. In D. E. Gussak & E. Virshup (Eds.), Drawing Time: Art Therapy in Prisons and Other Institutional Settings (pp. 13 - 24). Chicago, Illinois: Magnolia Street Publishers.


Erika said...

This year I began working with re-entry clients from Rikers Island NY prison and recently moved into the prison system doing group art therapy. Thank you for sharing this blog! It is helpful. I work for The Fortune Society, we are trying to also write grants and find funding to continue the programs, any suggestions on who to outreach for donations? Thanks for your insight and guidance.

Tori Berry said...

I'm writing my speech on using art to rehabilitate prisoner and I'm having trouble writing it. I need an attention getter but cant seem to think of a good. i was thinking of starting with a did u know fact.

Amanda Barncord said...

When I did my presentation, I showed pictures of some of the art produced in prison.

Tori Berry said...

Alright i have my speech tomorrow and my speech is nearly done. The only part i have left is to give a large scale solution to the situation and how it will benefit my audience and what each person in the room can do on there own. Well were not going to do do anything, the speech is mainly to practice writing persuasive speeches.

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