Drawings and other self-generated forms of visual art produced by people suffering from mental illness sparked the interest of psychiatrists around the end of the 19th century. They were considered “outpourings of the mind in turmoil” (Rubin 6). Fascinated by these samples of artwork, psychiatrists began to study them in an attempt to better understand the creator and the illness. Art therapy is a fluid, adaptable and evolving field. Today art therapists employ a variety of methods and work in a variety of rehabilitation settings, but the focus of this paper is the use and benefits of visual art therapy in correctional settings. Unfortunately, there has been little research to measure the effectiveness of art therapy in prison. Researchers are still in the early stages of understanding what art therapy does, how it does this, and why it is effective. Through art therapy programs, prisoners are able to more fully come to know themselves and are therefore fore able to authentically participate in life and community as well as develop an ongoing motivation towards recovery.
About the Art Therapist
Art therapists have experience in at least one previous field of knowledge such as: medicine, psychology, education, visual arts, or social work. They work in a variety of rehabilitation settings with a variety of issues including: mental health problems, learning difficulties, language and communication difficulties, imprisonment, medical problems, sensory or physical problems, stress, emotional and/or social problems. In a prison setting, a therapist is likely to encounter more than one of these issues with each client. Each of these contexts have their own requirements for rehabilitation. Art therapists define what they do by the context they are working in.
How Art Therapy Works
The purpose of art therapy is different from that of most other art activities, especially in a correctional environment. The finished external piece created during these sessions is secondary—a tangible product on which the client can place his or her feelings, including anger, safely. The primary outcome is change on the part of the person who created the artwork. The loss of freedom, often times, compounds anger for many inmates. “Being separated from “outside life” can also aggravate social and family problems” (Ambridge, Maggie, et al. 87). Angry behavior is often the result of not being able to articulate emotional experiences. Art therapy is a way to provide prisoners an outlet to explore his or her feelings through non-verbal communication. It is also a way for prisoners to articulate the things that he or she feels cannot, or should not, be said “out loud”. Such things can more safely be communicated through their art.
These therapy sessions can be enjoyable and lead to the development of a sense of creativity. This healthy social interaction is a good opportunity for growth and healing and has been shown to be effective in reducing offending...