Why art shouldn't just be a luxury in prison

Opinion: The arts are as vital in prisons as they are everywhere else in our society because the arts are carriers of hope, writes Professor Peter O'Connor.

Professor Peter O'Connor

International evidence is crystal clear on the impact of the arts in prisons and youth justice settings. Recidivism rates drop, violent incidents in prisons decrease and many prisoners learn skills that transfer well in their transition back into the outside world. And the arts are comparatively cheap for all they can achieve.

Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland and Arts Access Aotearoa hosted the Northern Regional Arts in Correction Network meeting last week. It is an unusual and powerful group, made up of artists, academics and staff and management from prisons across the region. What brings them together is a confidence that the arts provide the potential to shift and change the culture of Corrections facilities in a deep and fundamental way. The arts achieve this because they encourage people to think about and reflect on their lives. They offer a process where the tumult of feelings about a life that has gone wrong can be processed. Through the arts, people can reimagine their lives. More than 100 years ago American philosopher John Dewey said the arts are the tools by which we train the imagination. It is only when we begin to imagine that our lives can be better that things can change, that possibility can enter the darkness of our lives.

The arts are as vital in prisons as they are everywhere else in our society because the arts are carriers of hope.

The arts should not be a luxury in a prison, something that comes and goes on the whim of individual prison administrators. Artists who work selflessly in large numbers across our prisons deserve a national corrections arts policy that acknowledges and values the work they do. They deserve a system that provides support to sustain their work. Some of the arts created in our prisons attract international attention for its quality.

To understand the possibilities of what can be achieved, you need look no further than the extraordinary work undertaken in the Northern Regional Correctional Facility. A long-standing arts programme led by Beth Hill and an enterprising and supportive prison management has sustained life-changing work there over the last four years. Beth describes the Redemption Performing Arts group as self-directed and disciplined.

“They meet deadlines, edit and resolve ideas with professionalism, and step out of their comfort zones week-in, week-out,” she says. They also make powerful theatre, their most recent work was based on the 28th Māori Battalion.

All prisoners deserve the right to begin to change their lives while incarcerated, and they deserve the opportunity to have access to high quality arts programmes to help achieve that.

Critics of the arts often dismiss them as some airy-fairy free-for-all. However, artists know the discipline inherent in any art-making is demanding. It requires the soft skills that employers value such as risk-taking, curiosity, collaboration and team-work, and creativity.

Perhaps most importantly, the arts remind us of our common humanity. Surely, we want prisoners to leave prison more in touch with the full range of what it is to be human: more hopeful, gentler, kinder, and more empathetic. The arts are no magic potion, but they provide the best chance we have to make our prisons more humane and more likely to create positive change.

The National Arts in Corrections Network, which involves hundreds of artists, educators and academics, is powerful because of the strength of their research and commitment to the arts and social justice. It is also powerful because it is a genuine alliance between Corrections staff, academics and artists determined to make a difference in the lives of the people they care for.

There seems to be a change at government level about how we might value more the possibilities of the arts. We need that commitment to the arts in our prisons. We need it to be driven at national level, recognising the arts as a human right that all New Zealanders deserve access to.

To lock the arts out is to lock out possibility.

Professor Peter O’Connor is a member of the Faculty of Education and Social Work, and is is an internationally recognised expert in applied theatre and drama education. Peter supervises doctoral and masters students using arts based methodologies with a social justice focus.

Used with permission from Newsroom, Why art shouldn't just be a luxury in prison published Monday 10 September 2018.