Because art matters—even in prison

Self-portrait #7, by Thomas Whittaker, from
Self-portrait #7, by Thomas Whittaker, from

This week marks the opening of an exhibit in an Ohio gallery that will feature the artwork of prisoners from across the state. The exhibition, entitled “Inside Looking Out: Creative Works by Ohio Prison Inmates” will be on display at the Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery.

While much of my focus as an activist and writer is centered around more academic education, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how important art education and facilitation is to an inmate’s rehabilitation as well.

So why art in prison? Well, we could certainly begin with the same answers to the more general question of “why art?” There are far too many to list here, but fundamentally it is because art feeds the soul, allows us to better understand the world around us and ourselves. This is website has a great sampling of what I mean.

But when it comes to the prison context, the role of art becomes something else entirely. For some, art is a means of survival. There’s a reason no one ever uses the term “institutional” to describe something of beauty. Prison buildings are by design bleak, dreary, empty, and arguably, soulless. Day upon day we are staring at blank walls, at emptiness. Art affords one the opportunity to see a way through that, to believe that change is possible, to give one hope.

From a more pragmatic perspective, arts and cultural education encourages the development of left brain thinking, and allows students to broaden their analytical skills. And just like with more traditional prison education, participation in arts programs has been shown to reduce recidivism.

The therapeutic value of artistic expression is immeasurable in quantitative terms, but art therapists know its impact. The majority of prisoners will never have had access to mental health resources, counsellors, or the like. And so the idea of suddenly opening up to a complete stranger about deep-seeded personal issues is not only foreign to them, it may be terrifying or even distasteful.  But creative endeavours allow the opportunity for exploring those issues safely and productively. You cannot understate the value of creative production, because it also affords something that many prisoners have never had: a sense of self-worth.

And for those of you on the outside looking in, I guarantee you that prisoners’ art will provide you a window into lives you’ve never known, perspectives you’ve never considered, and a humanity you’d not have thought possible. If you are in the Ohio area, I encourage you to take a moment to see the new exhibition. And if you’re not, The Prison Arts Coalition is a wonderful resource to explore.