The Value of Artistic Expression Inside Prison Walls

ART IN PRISON

ART THERAPY

ART AND SOCIAL CHANGE

DISRUPTING STEREOTYPES

 

This week’s Arts in Society blog post was written in partnership with Joann Asakawa-Huntz, Program Coordinator at Art Students League of Denver (ASLD). The organization received an Arts in Society grant in 2018 for their new workshop program called Art in Prison, dedicated to bringing art therapy and art education to incarcerated women in Denver.

Art in Prison is a collaborative program between Art Students League of Denver (ASLD) and the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), offering visual arts education to incarcerated people. Workshops began in 2018 and continue through 2020, beginning at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, with plans to expand into other Colorado prisons and jails.

 
 
 
 

I got lost in the art. It took me out of here.

- Art in Prison workshop participant

 

Sharing tools for creative self expression

 

Art in Prison aims to improve day-to-day life within Colorado jails and prison facilities, with the long-term goal of reducing recidivisim for its participants. Workshop offerings included lessons on painting, drawing , printmaking and more. Incarcerated participants sign up for workshops of their own choosing.

Since launching the program in January 2019, we have conducted 25 workshops inside Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, reaching over 200 participants. Our hope is that we can continue developing and expanding the program into other Colorado prison facilities in the near future.

Anecdotally, our Art in Prison participants have shared that participating in our workshops is helping to improve their self-confidence and providing a creative outlet for stress.

 
 
 
 

I enjoyed the freedom to explore in a non-threatening environment.

- Art in Prison workshop participant

 
 

Navigating the bureaucracy of the prison system

 

From an administrative perspective, Art in Prison has certainly come with no shortage of odd and new challenges. Providing consistent, high quality arts programming, while navigating a tricky and strict bureaucratic prison system has been eye-opening to say the least.

As the Program Coordinator at ASLD, I have been primarily tasked with determining the logistics by working closely with the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility programs staff. Together we have planned and implemented these new workshops successfully but not without challenges; we are constantly reminded that working within the constraints of the prison system entails lots of patience, time, detailed communication and following up.

Teaching art to incarcerated people requires that all of our faculty undergo extensive background checks and that their schedules are perfectly pinned down. We are required to communicate every detail to CDOC, documenting which types of paper we are using and counting every single pencil we bring inside. Navigating this system has made Art in Prison a truly distinctive endeavor. 

 
Faculty prepare to teach an Art in Prison workshop inside Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Image courtesy of Art Students League of Denver.

Faculty prepare to teach an Art in Prison workshop inside Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Image courtesy of Art Students League of Denver.

 
 

“I liked participating in this class because I got to represent my feelings and it was another way to express myself with some materials I’ve never used before.”

- Art in Prison workshop participant

 
 
 
 

Disrupting stereotypes about incarceration

 

Artist Faculty member Victoria Eubanks reported that the most powerful aspect of the Art in Prison workshops was that it offers opportunities for incarcerated women to be able to “create” without being told what do. Additionally, the program is proving to have a reciprocal effect for participating workshop teachers. Eubanks also reported that the Art in Prison program has brought the humanity of the incarcerated women front and center, allowing her to work through her preconceived notions of the prison setting and incarcerated people themselves.

 
 

Art is very therapeutic- it teaches another way to express ourselves in a safe healthy manner.

- Art in Prison workshop participant

 
 
 
 

Advocacy and agency for incarcerated women

 
 

Witnessing this program develop over the past year, through many growing pains, progressing into the successful place we are in now is very exciting. Art in Prison workshops are consistently full with lots of excited participants who are eager sign up for classes. They have provided amazing feedback about their experiences. 

One of the biggest hurdles we have faced was an initial CDOC parameter for the program, which stated that the workshop participants were not allowed by to keep artworks of their own creation. Over the many months, myself and the ASLD continually asked CDOC to consider other options, including giving participants the option to mail their artworks to family and loves ones. We also offered to take the artworks offsite to display in an exhibit at ASLD where they could be viewed.

After many unsuccessful attempts at getting a clear answer and course of action, we were thrilled that our Art in Prison workshop participants were finally approved to bring their own artworks to their rooms! This development has been monumental in making our workshop participants feel fully appreciative of the works they’ve created.

Not only do they get to experience and try new artistic processes and mediums, but now they can actually have something tangible to keep and display as their own. The most amazing aspect of this negotiation is that workshop participants themselves advocated on their own behalf to keep their artworks, continually conveying to their unit wardens the real value of Art in Prison and how meaningful it is for them to keep their own artwork. 

 
 
 
 

“Learning how to tell a story without words was amazing.

I’m so happy with the stories I’ve told.”

- Art in Prison workshop participant

 
 

Lessons learned, moving forward

 

For myself, this program has been so gratifying to work on, in many ways. Attending Art in Prison workshops and seeing them in action has been incredible, especially witnessing how our talented faculty have been able to adapt their teaching styles and display such great flexibility to work in this unique environment. It has also been wonderful to see the commitment of the CDOC staff in helping to make this program a success.

Art in Prison has shown to me how much CDOC staff care about the incarcerated women’s well-being. I’m sure there will be many kinks to work out still along the way, but we are definitely making some major positive strides!

 
 

Learn more:

Art Students League of Denver

Prison Policy Initiative - Colorado Statistics

Text edited by Sarah Slater. Images courtesy of Unsplash unless otherwise noted.

 
 

 

About Arts in Society

Since 2016, Arts in Society has been funding individuals, grants, schools and government entities, with two-year grant awards of up to $50,000 per project. In addition to funding, grantees receive training, professional development, and marketing/social media support. Funding is offered to projects in Colorado that are working collaboratively and utilizing the arts as an integral element for promoting social justice and community welfare.

Arts in Society is funded through a cohort of Colorado funders. 2019 funding partners include Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Hemera Foundation, and Colorado Creative Industries . Funds and support are administered via RedLine Contemporary Art Center in Denver. For more information, visit our the Arts in Society website.

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