Making quality of life for people in prison easier isn’t exactly at the top of many people’s to-do lists. In fact, it probably wouldn’t even be a consideration to many people.
However, a recent trend among quality-of-life advocates has appeared with the use of art therapy for prison inmates, including people with life sentences to the short-term incarcerated.
Locally, this adoption of trend can be found at the Lucien Crump Gallery on Germantown Avenue, where owner Loretta Tate has been holding weekly art therapy sessions for female inmates. Tate herself holds no information about the situations that landed these women in their current situations, and instead is only on a first-name basis with the women. They step into her space every Monday to work on projects varying from clothing to pillows to wall decorations,
“I feel my own form of therapy working with these women,” Tate explained concerning her program. “These women come in confused about their lives, and it feels good to give sustaining help.”
As defined by the American Art Therapy Association, “Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages…based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.”
While the use of art therapy is not approved or admired by all prison administrators, major studies have been conducted to test whether or not it is helpful concerning inmates. A study by Dr. David Gussack at Florida State University conducted to measure the effects of art therapy with prison inmates found that participants demonstrated marked improvement in mood. Follow-up studies over the next two years confirmed these results.
Even more importantly, family members of participants have had good things to say. Alexandra Furst, a student at Montclair State University, has an incarcerated mother who has been participating in an art therapy program for the past year. Furst wouldn’t disclose much information about her mother’s prison sentence and crime, but she did say that it seemed to make her mother happier over recent visits as she was showing off a few pillows and things she had made.
“My mom used to be really into crafts when I was younger. It brings back nice memories for me when I visit her and she shows me some of her projects, or on my birthday when I get a handmade gift instead of a card. It’s got a very nostalgic sense for me, and for my mom as well. She may be paying dues for some bad behavior, but she still deserves to get to do some things that make her happy. Everyone does.”
Brenda Norman, who works alongside Tate at the Crump Gallery as a volunteer during the art therapy sessions, also had good things to say about the improved spirits of the women involved. “I’ve been involved with Art From the Heart [the formal title of Tate’s program] since January, and everyone involved seems to enjoy what they are doing. Moods seem to improve over the few hours spent working and getting out for a bit,” Norman explained.
Eileen Jones, director of the Germantown Avenue Crisis Ministry, believes in art therapy as a useful tool for all varieties of inmates. She stated, “Our prison system is a collection of people being punished for different sorts of crimes. We want to do our part as a culture to make sure people deal with the repercussions of their actions, but also are treated humanely and allow them to work through their issues and exercise methods of therapy and learning.” Jones is openly in favor of art therapy.
Art Therapy is not considered a saving grace for the souls of the people who practice it, but it is being explored as a healthy and positive activity for those in need of a plausible project. Tate envisioned her program as an aid for people to overcome obstacles and familial issues, available to people young and old. She hopes to expand her program to also include being a potential therapy outlet for children and young adults going through traumatic circumstances, an alternative to just talking to a therapist or doctor and trying to verbalize issues.
Furst, who has no relation to the Art From the Heart program specifically, hopes that more programs like this are opened up in other areas. “I am all in favor of the sense of happiness I see this restore in my mother, and if it can help other people besides her, then I am all in favor of more incarcerated women and men being offered an opportunity to use programs like this one.”
[soundslide url=”https://astro.temple.edu/~tua45772/Art_from_the_Heart/” height=”550″ width=”600″]