The use of artistic methods as therapeutic techniques for enhancing mental health and treating psychological disorders is known as art therapy. Integrating psychotherapeutic techniques with creativity is an approach to mental health that involves the process of creating art to help people explore their self-expression. Both creating and viewing art can help one explore their emotions, communicate feelings, boost self-esteem, cope with stress and trauma, and develop self-awareness and new coping skills.
Throughout history, people have been using art as a way to communicate, express, and heal. However, it was not until the mid-20th century that art therapy began to formalize. Doctors noted that patients suffering from mental illness and extreme traumas often used drawings and other forms of art to express themselves. Since then, many have started using art as a healing strategy, making art an important part of the therapeutic field.
Rehabilitation Through the Arts
An innovative rehabilitation program based on art therapy has been shown to drastically reduce recidivism, to less than 5% in prison. Twenty years ago, in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the RTA (Rehabilitation Through the Arts) non-profit organization was born, and their wide-ranging arts program has been helping people in prison build necessary life skills for surviving in the real world. It has dramatically improved prison safety and morale and helped those who are incarcerated to work more cooperatively and act more respectfully.
Each prison where RTA operates has about 30 professional educators and artists who volunteer to run the workshops. The curriculum of workshops is unique in each of the prisons where RTA operates. In addition to original, classical, and contemporary musical products, inmates can also engage in Shakespeare studies, visual arts, playwriting, and modern dance. The results showed that the program participants engaged in fewer violent interactions and showed increased interest in the pursuit of higher education.
Future IDs at Alcatraz
The U.S. prison system is the largest in the world – 25% of the world’s incarcerated people and 5% of the world’s population. Having conversations around incarceration is more than necessary because once released from prison, people face an enormous amount of stigma due to their history of incarceration.
A yearlong project in making and a show that ran from February to September of 2019 occupied the New Industries Building on the infamous Alcatraz Island, Future IDs at Alcatraz, included a series of monthly public programs on view. The installations feature artworks created with and by individuals with incarceration histories as they conceived and developed a vision for their transformed, future selves. The artworks presented tell many individual stories of personal transformation.
Gregory Sale is an artist who wants to shift people’s thinking about rehabilitation and reintegration by translating the efforts of the U.S. criminal justice reform into a visual language. With the help of Sabrina Reid, Kirn Kim, Jessica Tully, and Dr. Luis Garcia, all working in the growing field of social-practice art, they have designed a project that utilizes civic dialogue experiments, workshops, and performances to make a meaningful and enduring cultural impact. Alcatraz, the former high-security prison, which is now a national park, attracts around 1.6 million visitors each year. Which makes it uniquely positioned to initiate an important dialogue about destigmatizing ex-convicts.
Reinvention through Art
At a gala event last year, there was an exhibition by several contributors to the program. Each of them stood next to their self-portraits, which depicted the future self they had imagined. The self-portraits were framed as identity cards. Lily Gonzalez, one of the participants, is 36 and served two and a half years for lesser crimes, and her card portrays her thrusting a red rose toward the viewer. The rose is a reference to Tupac Shakur’s poem The Rose That Grew from Concrete. It symbolizes the shift in how she views her relationship with the world. The photos and text paired with small icons in the format of large-scale ID cards reference their hopes, accomplishments, and lives.
Art opens up different parts of your brain and makes you come to your own realization. People who leave the prison system face stigma, isolation, barriers to employment, and other daunting obstacles. This project is a cultural solution to that societal problem. As a result, more than 100 people have illustrated their transformation and showed determination to really make the most of their second chance.
On the third Saturday of each month, other participatory programs accompanied the Future IDs at Alcatraz, including Success Center, Young Women’s Freedom Center, Project Rebound, Actors’ Gang Prison Project, William James Association, and others. They have all contributed to the resonance of the project and helped it succeed.
Helping Reverse the Effects of Mass Incarceration
The way policymakers view the transition to life outside of prison is changing. As bail and sentencing laws are becoming less harsh, different reforms across the country have started to reverse the effects of decades of mass incarceration. More people are being released from prisons, and now, more people recognize the disproportionate incarceration of discriminated racial groups. Due to overcrowding, the federal Supreme Court ordered the state of California to reduce the number of incarcerated people, and about a quarter of their prison population has been released on parole or transferred to local jails over the past ten years. This could be a turning point for the U.S. penal system.
This shift has different arts organizations engaging in their art therapy programs. For example, Changing Voices is a program in Chicago that offers a place for young ex-convicts to recast their experiences as a musical theatre for legislators, judges, and students. The Street Symphony players in Los Angeles are helping former inmates to set their poetry to music, while the Tia Chucha Centro Cultural in the San Fernando valley includes them in its theatre and open-mic performances. The Art for Justice Fund supports many of these projects, because, “There’s an urgency to begin to see incarcerated people as they really are, as human beings, as husbands and fathers and mothers and daughters. At the most fundamental level, art gives people a voice,” emphasizes Helena Huang, the fund’s project director.
It is not about what a therapist may tell you, but about the transformative magic that art’s healing process brings. Art as a therapy helps in regulating emotional responses and impulses, behavior change, personal integration, strengthening self-image, and help experiencing deeper emotional catharsis for many incarcerated populations. Thanks to projects like the Future IDsexhibition last year, we are closer to identifying that magic and igniting hopeful conversations on the highly positive effects of art and art therapy.