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A Critical Introduction to Arts Behind Bars

Summary and Keywords

This article proposes a focus on some of the arguments in the field—what is “arts behind bars”? What are some of the intentions, and why would people do it? It also signals the range of practices that are to be found—from the development of needlework in male prisons through to participatory arts projects with young people in prisons to collaborative stage shows. Artists working in criminal justice have a wide range of intentions. For a few, there might be a frisson of the danger and caged energy behind bars that is stimulating to creativity and could add something to their own creative process. The model of art for prisoners—professional artists staging a show or doing an unplugged music event in a prison—can raise the profile of prisons and punishment. However, there are a great number of projects that move towards forms of art created with and by prisoners, thereby aligning them with a long history of social and participatory arts. Theoretically, then, the arts behind bars are informed by critical pedagogies as much as the specific disciplinary approaches. This model seeks to build critical consciousness and confidence in mastery as well as induction into the discipline of learning any skill for the purposes of liberating through knowledge. In arts behind bars, the knowledge base might include literacy outcomes, but the learning is often communal, and about creative self-expression.

The practitioners of arts behind bars have two driving intentions. Either they seek to engage more people with their art form and are willing to work in a range of contexts, or they are committed to social justice and hope to use the art form towards additional aims of generating understanding and redressing some of the inequalities experienced by prisoners. It is necessary to consider what new perspectives are offered to the subject of arts in criminal justice by thinking about how wider resources, culture, and artistic paradigms affect perceptions of the value of interventions. This highlights the need for awareness of those artists who choose to work in prisons of the moral and ethical questions raised by bringing art to the system.

Keywords: arts, arts education, arts for social change, desistance, reducing reoffending interventions, prison theater

Introducing the Arts Behind Bars

The 1955 live recording in San Quentin of “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash is a key moment for artists in prisons, with compelling imagery of a captive audience and a fraught emotional reception for music that spoke directly to experiences of men on the margins. Yet there are many more instances of artists whose approach moves beyond celebrities performing to audiences comprised of prisoners. This article engages with the widest possible spectrum of arts practices in the context of the criminal justice system. Partly, its remit shifts beyond art for inmates, and towards forms of art created with and by prisoners, thereby aligning it with a long history of social and participatory arts.

The arts behind bars are a combination of context and practice that raises eyebrows and guarantees further conversation. The two arenas can appear to be either of obvious benefit, or ridiculous—simply not worthy of attention. On one side, those who perceive the benefits consider the value of the arts in humanizing, teaching empathy, and engaging people in skills-based learning. The other side of the argument inevitably relies on what people understand as the purposes of prison, asking “why should prisoners have fun when they are meant to be punished?” Such a view is a reminder that the debates about crime and punishment that are played out in public often neglect the foundational imperative to incarcerate people humanely, while keeping the public safe. Arts behind bars remain controversial, though it is not a simplistic controversy that maps onto political affiliation, for example. This wide spectrum of responses points to the contradictions that appear in which the institution is viewed as fixed, systemic, and punitive and arts practices as embodying freedom. These are obviously simplifications of institutions’ functions as well as assumptions about the liberal benevolence and political “impotence” of art. Yet, as theater scholar Caoimhe McAvinchey (2011) points out in her outstanding introductory volume Theatre & Prison, these apparent contradictions need further critical attention.

This approach to the topic of the arts in criminal justice is from just such a critical stance, with a particular focus on broadening critical attention of arts behind bars to include the Global South, specifically South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil. This article proposes a focus on some of the arguments in the field—what is “arts behind bars”? What are some of the intentions, and why would people do it? It also signals the range of practices that are to be found—from the development of needlework in male prisons with Fine Cell Work to the collaborative stage shows of Synergy Theatre Company. The literature review section is organized by subdiscipline and points towards some of the critical perspectives from a criminological point of view. The article then moves to a discussion of the contexts and benefits of arts behind bars before considering the relationship between the arts and education. The final section offers a closer look at two models of practice, long term arts interventions and regime-changing projects, before developing an argument for politicizing arts in criminal justice. It considers how prison arts projects might work to destabilize prison regimes in relation to logistics, impacts, and effects of participation, but they can also, as discussed by James Thompson (2004), stabilize the punitive regime by reinforcing correct behaviors, working to model remorse, rehearse corrections, and stage docility.

As the first section shows, there is a well-established seam of artistic endeavor that is practiced, taught, workshopped, and rehearsed in prisons, secure institutions, with people on remand, and at all stages of incarceration and community reintegration. While the article does not offer a comprehensive overview of all arts practices globally, it aims to provide indicative examples from a wide range of contexts that point to the intentions, methods, and outcomes of arts in criminal justice. It is important to note that as with all socially engaged art forms, arts in these contexts rely on funding or resources, and so often established and successful projects may not be sustainable due to financial hardship. The essay pays particular attention to practices in prisons, as these are distinctive practices that have motivations and outcomes that are related to, but not the same as, community based programs for those at risk or undertaking reintegration probation orders. Partially, this is due to the nature of community interventions—when people are free to participate or to choose how else to spend their time, and unless there is a court order or another disciplinary institution monitoring attendance as part of sentence planning, voluntary projects are not always completed. In prisons, however, although there are inevitable interruptions and barriers to participation, prisoners who have signed up for projects have the chance to attend regularly. The arts behind bars serve a range of functions: from distracting from everyday institutional life to purposeful rehabilitation, skills development, or creative self-expression. Music, fine art, creative writing, theater, or dance can be self-taught or facilitated by professional artists. This is the dominant model in the United Kingdom, where arts in prisons are funded as regular community arts projects with charitable status. In many international contexts, prison arts sessions are often supervised by teaching artists whose university programs align with community-based learning.

Artists working in criminal justice have a wide range of intentions. There might be a frisson of the danger and caged energy behind bars that is stimulating to creativity and add something to the process of developing work (as in the example of Johnny Cash). Mostly, however, the practitioners of arts behind bars have two driving intentions. Either they seek to engage more people with their art form, and are willing to work in a range of contexts, or they are committed to social justice and hope to use their art form towards additional aims of generating understanding and redressing some of the inequalities experienced by prisoners.

It is important to note that the vast majority of arts behind bars occur without public visibility—an exhibition, performance, or show. There may be performances or the sharing of work among the prison population and staff, or in some cases, the arts projects may be focused on processes rather than developing final projects. When there are attempts to make public the outcomes of prison arts projects, there is a wider ethical parameter that needs to be considered—how the arts might reinforce or undermine the regimes of correction. For both participants and artist facilitators, there is the need to attend to how forms and outcomes navigate stigma, lack of opportunity, and lack of resources. The next section offers a brief introduction to the wide range of possible arts projects behind bars.

Companies and Practitioners

Arts in Criminal Justice organizations have developed significantly since the late 1970s, with a particularly significant increase in theater in prisons since the early 2000s. Companies such as Geese Theatre use masks in a well-established model aligned with therapeutic interventions in both the United States and the United Kingdom (Baim, Brookes, & Mountford, 2002). This company’s ethos develops out of drama therapy, and the core masks incorporate a series of common “types” of attitude adopted by prisoners. These include amusing masks designed to replicate attitudes such as “the wall,” “the fist,” and “the joker,” among others. The participatory sessions using these masks include group work by trained facilitators who are able to work through both performance and facilitated discussions to unpack some of the ingrained behaviors and “fronts” adopted by prisoners when they face conflict. There is a great deal of compelling evaluative research done on their work that demonstrates how the theater-based interventions correlate with the criminal justice context (Watson, 2009). Other practices range from those influenced by canonical work that sets a challenge for prisoners to engage with difficulties and barriers of understanding, interpreting, and sometimes staging Shakespeare. In the section Digital materials links, with web links to further resources, readers can access details about Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare Behind Bars project, Jean Trounstine’s work on poetry and writing with female prisoners (2004), and Pimlico Opera’s work staging large-scale performances for the public using well-known scripts and integrated casts of prisoners and professional performers. Compagnia Della Fortezza, based in Italy, is an established theater company of prisoner/actors who have developed productions that have toured to several sites in Italy. These have included a cabaret based on Brecht’s work, Faust, and several Shakespeare adaptations. Other art forms that relate to collaboration include music with good practice documented by the Irene Taylor Trust and the Good Vibrations project. Music projects are often exceedingly popular, providing a communal experience that is accessible for most prisoners and without requiring existing skills. The outcomes of group music-making are frequently recorded and available on CD for participants to have as a sense of accomplishment. The discipline and focus of making music collaboratively offers prisoners a good deal of structure to have responsibility for one instrument, or keeping the tempo, for example; but the overall effectiveness of the work is due to how each element is incorporated into a whole. This provides a safe structure for people in a different way than, for example, the pressure of learning a whole monologue from Shakespeare. A UK-based project (no longer operational due to funding cuts) operating mostly in community contexts with young people on probation or serving community sentences is Dance United. Their work on physical training, discipline, and creative development is a particularly interesting and valuable offering for young people whose lives may otherwise be characterized by chaos, lack of positive reinforcement, and a sense of never having completed anything. Such language replicates discourses of individual responsibility, as discussed further below.

As evidenced by the partial overview above, different forms of art require distinctive access to resources, space, special materials or technology. This can mean an added level of complication for institutions whose staff may refuse access to artists on a digital music program, for example, on the grounds of technical limitations and fear of security breach. By contrast, writing projects can be more simply integrated into punitive regimes, as they can often work effectively even under strict security conditions, and can be conducted in groups or one-to-one. In the United Kingdom there is an established practice of placing writers in residence by the Writers in Prison Foundation (active till 2013). US-based author Wally Lamb & The women of York Correctional Institution and Lamb’s model of prison writing using testimonies (2003, 2007) and Pat Graney’s (2006) work offer a sense of oral history that develops writing skills for participants as well as offering an insight into the systemic oppressions and inequalities faced by incarcerated people. Alongside these participatory practices there are also, of course, established artists who draw on themes and aesthetics of incarceration in their work. In 2016, Artangel’s program of resident artists reading Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol from the prison was streamed online.

These well-established programs across the United Kingdom and the United States have had a considerable amount of critical attention, and they can be upheld as dominant practices that “work.” This phrase alludes to a policy approach in the United Kingdom that seeks to position any intervention including work, education, or psychiatric treatment in relation to what will work to reduce reoffending. Of course, from the perspective of prison abolitionists, there is no single intervention that can “work,” considering the violence of the system and the structural inequalities that criminalize the poor and often marginalized communities across the globe. These perspectives, from sociology to criminology, propose a critique of “what works” within that wider context. What is not always accounted for in research on arts in prisons is that the value of participation in the arts is narrated and evaluated on the terms of the institutions, rather than the arts intervention as such. This leads to research that is contingent, relying on often anecdotal stories about participants’ perceived change, or alternatively to commissioned reports and evaluations that attend to data, enumerating a value model that not only eliminates the experience of participation but reduces the argument of arts and efficacy to economics. This extends to the kinds of language used that replicates the logic of antisocial behavior, for example, with the predominance of programs tending toward pro-social models of change. Such programs are fulfilling for participants, and yet these discourses can be mobilized by the state to reinforce individualizing narratives around crime.

Both types of approach require the good will of prison management to provide access to prisoners, space, and time within the regime, and this often goes along with what Leonidas Cheliotis, citing Stan Cohen, calls “good stories” of humane incarceration (2012). It is clear, then, that in this field there is a great deal of negotiation of language and navigation of (sometimes divergent) expectations about participation. One such important point about language is the distinction between departments of “corrections” (United States, Australia, and South Africa) and Her Majesty’s Prison Service (United Kingdom). It extends to distinctions between what to call incarcerated people—“inmates” in the United States, “offenders” in the United Kingdom and South Africa, and “prisoners” in Australia—that is discussed in an important essay by scholar of social and applied theater James Thompson (2004). One aim in this article is to consider what new perspectives are offered to the subject of arts in criminal justice by thinking about how wider (often national or state-allocated) resources, culture, and artistic paradigms affect the ways we may understand their value. Underpinning all this is a critical awareness—often shared by artists who choose to work in prisons—of the moral and ethical questions raised by bringing art to the system.

Discussion of the Literature

It is not surprising that different disciplinary approaches in the arts in criminal justice merit literatures with distinctive outcomes. Writing programs tend to concentrate on the kinds of narratives, metaphors, and testimonies are produced and sometimes reflect on the learning experience of the participants involved (Graney, 2006; Lamb & The women of York Correctional Institution, 2003; Lamb, 2007; Levi & Waldman, 2011; Trounstine, 2004). Much of this work reflects transformational experiences for prisoners learning how to articulate life stories and contribute towards how they hope to change their stories. Yet there are also restrictions on how much prisoners can write about crimes, and so the vast majority of work that is published remains framed as narrative of chaos, multiple victimization, and intersecting factors that lead to criminalization. It is important also to note the particular value of writing projects in prisons: they often correlate with increasing literacy levels of prisoners, who may have faced long-term disaffection and disengagement with formal education.

Visual arts projects understandably attend to the imagery produced by institutions and prisoners, and might take more inventive forms in disseminating how the arts behind bars are reproduced. In terms of theoretical context, Eamonn Carrabine’s compelling work on visual criminology (2016) is a good place to start when it comes to how imagery of crime and justice shapes the imagination. It is important to note that there are often restrictions on how photographs or visual materials can be disseminated for security reasons, with the notable exception of Pete Brooks’ award-winning blog “Prison Photography,” which has engaged with how the camera is used in prisoner-led art projects as well as in exhibitions by professional artists whose subject includes criminal justice. It is a strong archive of international materials exemplifying a wide range of practices and approaches to the subject. In Prison Culture (Bliss et al., 2009), an exhibition catalogue offers images of curation related to prison arts in the United States. In the visual arts, provided there is access to materials, prisoners can often partake in sketching, paper modeling, or designing when they are locked up, so there is further possibility to develop skills outside of classroom or art studio contexts. The Koestler Trust’s annual awards attract a range of work, from soap carvings to oil paintings and ceramics, that attest to the scale of fine art practices that are being developed in prisons.

In theater and performance, considering there is a longer history of theorizing this work, there are foundational texts that offer critical perspectives on drama practices behind bars. Two edited collections by James Thompson (1998) and Michael Balfour (2004) provide a rich sense of the discourses of change, the kinds of practices employed in workshops, and the ways in which outcomes are evaluated. In these works, it is important to note that prison artists’ voices are also included in the collections. This is unusual in that there are often copyright issues related to prisoners’ work being reproduced. This is dependent on state contexts, but the governance of prisoners’ writing or artwork must be placed in the context of victim awareness and the wider issues related to perceptions that prisoners continue to benefit from the proceeds of crime. This has meant that in the United Kingdom, there have been restrictions on publishing poetry or memoirs in which prisoners reflect on their lives of crime or life stories in such a way that could lead to a charge of “fetishizing” crime and criminality. Sophie Grove’s 2009 Newsweek article explores the sense of a growing market for art developed and sold by prisoners. This kind of “market” means that there is the need to further scrutinize the intentions and outcomes of arts behind bars—when they are not delivered within a program of rehabilitation and could be exploited for gains beyond education and skills development. This need to attend carefully to how inside is translated to outside and the moral and ethical implications of arts outcomes is a major element of the critical scholarship of this field, which has become more prevalent since about 2008.

Further critical perspectives draw attention to the uneasy “siting” between discourses of “healing,” “transformation,” and “catharsis” that tend to fit alongside whatever funding agenda gains prominence in shifting cultural and economic landscapes (Thompson, 2011). Yet, as the preceding examples of practice show, there are a range of arguments to be made for why arts behind bars make sense, including criminological arguments relating to desistance, development of alternative behaviors in relation to anger management, and an awareness of cycle of change. Dominant practices in arts behind bars often position the arts as moral education and seek to argue for the arts’ contribution to reducing reoffending. Some of these are elaborated upon in the collected volumes on prison arts programs (Balfour, 2004; Thompson, 1998; Williams, 2003). In his interdisciplinary edited collection The Arts of Imprisonment, Cheliotis (2012) points out that there is also the tendency for arts projects to be put in service of the institution’s aims—that while ostensibly benevolent in aim, the results of compliant prisoners and convincing stories of change and transformation can be used to bolster the prison’s image as rehabilitative. As such, it is necessary to develop critical theorizations of how theater and other arts institutions “work” within the context of the institution (as in a related piece of work, Walsh, in press).

Rachel Marie-Crane Williams’ edited volume Teaching the Arts Behind Bars (2003) offers a wealth of perspectives from experienced practitioners across art forms. The book proposes an introduction and tips for prospective arts teachers as to what they might expect, including challenges and suggested triumphs. In particular, chapters by William Cleveland and Buzz Alexander as well as Grady Hillman position the practitioner/teacher as learning about the criminal justice system while teaching the skills-based art form. Partly, however, what is heartening is to understand and anticipate that while teaching artists can prepare for how they might practice within the context of institutions, no two prisons are the same, and thus it is not always possible to predict how one regime might accept and welcome an intervention that to another seems inappropriate, leading to being shut down.

Contexts and Benefits of the Arts Behind Bars

There is no singular context of practice in this field of participatory arts: seasoned practitioners might be faced with the same baffling inconsistencies prisoners encounter all the time. They may be refused access, be blocked by officers or uniformed staff who do not see the relevance of arts, or be undermined or threatened by staff whose targets will be affected if prisoners attend other sessions. Yet, across the world, the resilience of prisoners’ abilities to access the arts and their creativity despite confinement are often surprising. It is this sense of the arts as indicative of resilience that sometimes yields a public platform for the outcomes of work, as in the United Kingdom’s Koestler Trust, which runs a complex annual national competition for artists across the art forms to submit work to be judged by professionals. Winners have their work curated by a high-profile cultural figure and a team with links to criminal justice such as magistrates, young offenders, or a victim support group. The result is a month-long exhibition in one of the United Kingdom’s cultural landmarks in central London, which means that prisoners nationally get their work seen by thousands of guests at this annual exhibition. Further outcomes can be that prisoners are matched with mentors who advise them about training or development opportunities while they plan for release.

Clean Break Theatre Company, founded in 1979 as HMP Askham Grange by two female prisoners serving sentences, is one of the longest-running prison arts programs in the United Kingdom. Its model includes a community-focused program of education and training alongside an artistic program designed to promote and advocate for issues related to women at risk of offending. This kind of program moves toward an ethical practice that recognizes the complex needs of people released from prison (or facing criminogenic risk factors, including precarious housing, poverty, drug or alcohol dependence, and social exclusion). This ethical approach sees education and training as key motivators for people engaging in personal development. Their work has an impressive legacy of politically engaged performances, some of which include plays by award-winning playwrights that have gone on to be staged abroad.

The Theatre in Prisons and Probation project (TiPP), based at the University of Manchester, has a strong focus on cycles of risk, offending, and reducing reoffending (Thompson, 1998). In addition to an impressive range of programs in the community, TiPP’s Blagg! and Pump projects offer ready-made arts-based exercises for facilitators to adopt (Thompson, 1999). Although using active participatory models from theater, the skills used are cross-arts and can be adopted as part of existing programs in anger management, assertiveness, or drug awareness programs.

In the United States, Rhodessa Jones’ long-running Medea Project for Incarcerated Women offers a mythic structure in which women rehearse testimonial-based performances that engage audiences with their intersecting narratives (Fraden, 2001). The project has enabled incarcerated women to develop performance skills, confidence, and awareness of listening and framing a story, as well as engaging wider public interest in the stories of victimization and multiple oppressions that relate to criminalized women. The critical writing on this project attends to the benefits, claims, and outcomes of participation in addition to the artistic resonances of myth and features of storytelling that relate to how criminal justice “stories” lives of prisoners and ex-prisoners.

Jenny Hughes (2005) offers a number of benefits of participation in the arts in criminal justice contexts. These range from “increased self-confidence to transferable skills—which can help divert people away from pathways to crime or break the cycle of re-offending” (p. 8). This overview of the kinds of claims for the arts offers an overview of largely UK-based practices and signals some of the issues in evaluation and research in this context.

As discussed elsewhere in writing on the claims for the range of interventions in criminal justice contexts, the arts are often positioned as one strategy that “works” (Walsh, in press). Much of the formative support for arts programs in criminal justice contexts in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and 2000s was bolstered by the commitment to research by the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice (NAACJ, formerly the Unit for Arts and Offenders initiated by Anne Peaker). In their work, which aims to influence policy, access and funding, the arts are seen to offer a

non-traditional, non-institutional, social and emotional environment; a non-judgmental and un-authoritarian model of engagement; and an opportunity to participate in a creative process that involves both structure and freedom.

(Peaker & Vincent, 1990, n.p.)

More recently, McNeill et al. (2010) stated that engagement in the arts can help to develop new relationships (with peers, and with the prison regime). On a wider level, they suggest that the arts often provide the means of imagining different future pathways in which (ex-)prisoners form different social identifications and rehearse lifestyles that are alternative to lives of crime. However, they point out that arts interventions are not likely to deliver concrete and realizable sentence plans in light of the complexities of resettlement needs, but that they “may help foster and reinforce motivation for and commitment to the change processes that these formal interventions and processes exist to support” (McNeill et al., 2010, p. 10). Both sets of claims hint towards the difficulties of the “place” of the creative participatory interventions into social and educational aims that rely on institutional collaboration.

An important report concerned with the value of participatory arts in relation to desistance from crime is Bilby et al. (2013). Its findings are indicative of the ways arts processes serve wider social justice, reintegration, and sustainable behavioral change agendas. This model of evaluation situates the arts squarely within traditional and behavioral criminological approaches and theories, which is an important example of the flexibility of the arts to serve different political or ideological aims. Some of the report’s suggestions are that individuals may begin to redefine themselves; that arts are responsive and engaging (and help engage people in education and work activities); that arts have a positive impact on self-management, including “increased self-control and problem solving skills” (p. 6); and that “engagement with arts projects facilitates increased compliance with criminal justice orders and regimes” (p. 6). This kind of finding in particular gives the sense that the arts can be used as a form of prisoner pacification. However, despite the rewards and benefits of participatory arts in the amelioration of social problems, projects ought to maintain critical reflexivity of the limitations of arts as interventions. The suggestion here is simply that practitioners acknowledge the multiple vectors of need faced by individuals in participatory arts contexts. It is neither possible nor feasible to suggest that single arts interventions operating in silos can impact on the individual’s longer-term “offending” behavior.

Arts Behind Bars as/and Education

This section considers how arts interventions are often practiced in the context of education provision. The alignment of the arts with formal requirements for education helps provide a sense of legitimacy for the arts. This occurs both at the level of the institution, where those operating primarily to ensure a secure custodial environment can be convinced of the arts as educative, and for prisoners, many of whom in all likelihood have been excluded from mainstream education.

However, as criminal justice contexts are characterized by ongoing exclusionary discourses, if arts projects are housed within education departments, this may preclude the engagement of people that do not already engage with education as part of their sentences. Another related issue here is that this can mean that the arts service a specific minority of prisoners who are already compliant and willing to cooperate with others. Any benefits that are noted as a result of participating in the arts are to be understood in relation to this potential niche group. Theoretically, then, the arts behind bars are informed by critical pedagogies as much as the specific disciplinary approaches. This model seeks to build critical consciousness and confidence in mastery as well as induction into the discipline of learning any skill, for the purposes of liberating through knowledge. In arts behind bars, the knowledge base might include literacy outcomes, but the learning is often communal and about creative self-expression.

Another way arts and education are aligned within this context is in relation to how projects are set up or sustained. While professional prison arts programs proliferated in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and beyond, as funding trends have shifted there has been the need for alternative means of supporting arts projects. This modeling of arts projects as community-engaged education has seen several programs develop from single outreach college courses in the liberal arts to cross-disciplinary programs that are sustainable (such as the Prison Creative Arts project run by the University of Michigan). This model engages college students in developing artist facilitator skills and working alongside professional teaching artists to plan, deliver, and evaluate projects in the criminal justice system. It is a model that is exemplary in terms of offering integrated learning opportunities for students and criminal justice partners. However, it also reinforces a sense of professional gap that is exacerbated by conservative funding trends that do not often support the development of funding models to pay for professional artist facilitators in prisons. These issues are evident in the United Kingdom and the United States, where there is ostensibly more access to funding than other areas in the Global South where the model of volunteering or tertiary education-aligned projects is more prevalent. Miranda Young-Jahangeer’s long term model of arts in prisons (2005, 2015) in KwaZulu Natal is one such example.

Two Models: Long-Term Interventions and Regime Change

An indicative example of long-term sustainable relationships is South African arts activist and educator Alexandra Sutherland’s project based in Grahamstown Correctional Centre, initiated in 2003. Located in the Eastern Cape, one of South Africa’s poorest provinces, Grahamstown is a settler town that exemplifies the inequalities related to poverty and systemic racism. Sutherland’s work in the prison system developed from initial workshops related to HIV/AIDS to current regular workshops with men in the secure forensic unit of the psychiatric hospital Fort England. The town is dominated by these imposing institutions: from each side, monuments to punishment, and in the centre, the university’s monuments to knowledge.

Sutherland’s project in Grahamstown Correctional Centre is unusual, given its longevity and its focus on aesthetic release, rather than a therapeutic imperative. In an interview with Sutherland, she highlights a particularly important resource in the project, her partnership with Luvuyo Yanta, a performer/facilitator. By collaborating, Sutherland offers the prisoners a model of cooperation, mutuality, and respect between the white English-speaking female facilitator and the black Xhosa-speaking male. South Africa’s mostly multilingual prison populace might develop improvised scenes in language rich with idiom, so the capacity of an artist to translate when needed is paramount. What is striking in this example of practice is the assured development of relationships over time and the ways unintended outcomes are explored. Sutherland’s critical writing on the project singles out gender as a particularly interesting ongoing trope of exploration through the creative safe space (2013, 2015). In particular, what is prevalent in these projects is the use of physical storytelling featuring often exuberant experimental characters that are devised by the group even when narratives are chosen that adhere to redemption stories of transformation. This means that Sutherland’s prison theater program seeks to develop artistic innovation in how people represent stories. In other words, particular forms can reflect contradictory messages that both resist and reproduce hegemonic narratives.

In an interview, Sutherland reflects that part of the facilitation role is about offering disruptions to how certain story structures are seen as inevitable (A. Sutherland, personal communication, 13 January, 2017). This playful, often nonlinear aesthetic that draws on stimulating visuals, song, and physicality is about augmenting prisoners’ scripts beyond “realism” or the default soap opera–style drama. For Sutherland, the power of this is how people can learn to see themselves as storytellers, and in the processes and commitment to improvisation, to realize how they can change characters, how stories can emerge out of nothing. In Sutherland’s projects, participants explore a range of possibilities and the ways stories can be told. By extension, they become aware that their own personal stories have options—that different outcomes are possible. This is important because incarceration can often highlight damaging distinctions of gendered behavior (including masculinity associated with aggression and violence, as discussed by Michael Balfour, 2003, and femininity as default “victim”). In the kinds of narratives that are rehearsed by prisoners in Sutherland’s workshops, she notes a broadening of experiences of identities as prisoners play across genders (2015). An oblique focus on systemic oppressions makes allowance for people to articulate and try out alternative responses to what might otherwise appear inevitable. Sutherland’s project remains significant in its regularity and capacity to generate a culture of arts-based education for some of the most marginalized prisoners. Her work with forensic inmates is particularly potent for its access and engagement under extreme conditions of incarceration—not least the lack of defined sentences. Its potency is tied to the presence, dedication, and motivation of the practitioner whose access is eased via institutional affiliation. Such contexts are not always sustainable, however, in shifting terrains of resources, political attitudes, and artists’ personal circumstances. This case is raised here as indicative of the many university-affiliated projects that are not funded directly with research grants but are supported in-kind by institutions.

One of the most significant projects dealing with the arts in criminal justice was the Staging Human Rights Project, run by Paul Heritage, based at People’s Palace Projects at Queen Mary, University of London. Heritage (2002, 2004) developed the six-year project in Brazil, reaching over 20,000 prisoners and 1,000 prison officers across eleven states out of an HIV/AIDS awareness project. This larger-scale project was set up in order to unpack how performance processes could be a means of considering how to effect change beyond the Eurocentric model of personal responsibility. If the dominant approach in the United Kingdom had become a focus on individuals rehearsing how to change their responses to “triggers” in models related to cognitive behavioral therapy (Thompson, 1999), Staging Human Rights was a project that engaged officers, government officials, and prisoners in a process of consultation and change-making through the use of arts processes (Heritage, 2002; Weaver, 2009). The wide-ranging project worked through participatory techniques to develop an alternative declaration of human rights that was particular to the prison service and that articulated how regime change was needed for everyone’s security, dignity, and humanity. The resulting work was supported by high-level partnerships in the regional ministry of justice, and the project’s international dimension lent it a profile that is not often enjoyed by local projects outside of the Global North.

These two short introductions to practice beyond the United Kingdom and United States suggest ways of using the arts not simply as a means of producing artistic products or outputs but of developing meanings that serve a social, emancipatory function. In other words, the arts can offer an opportunity to work through and to better reflect experiences beyond the isolation of the regime. After all, prisons and their regimes of correction reflect, and are informed by, social norms and values and are governed by changing political contexts. In the example of Staging Human Rights, the explicit framing of the centrality of human rights in prison resulted in attitudinal shift towards change of regimes, how power operates, and how people might interact differently. In relation to gender, the explicit attention to intersecting oppressions faced by criminalized women is attended to by Clean Break and explored by scholar/practitioners in a range of contexts in the forthcoming collection by McAvinchey (in press). While many of the other examples offered in this essay are valuable in themselves, more scholarly attention needs to be paid to the art forms that make space for this ambitious renegotiation of the self, criminality, systems, and futures.

Politicizing Arts in Criminal Justice

In an already highly politicized field, why propose a specifically politicized engagement with the arts behind bars? Partly, this proposition relates to the inherent “problem” of prison arts research: if it is not explicitly about holding the state to account, how do we attend to the ethics, logistics, and scope of artistic practices that move from inside to outside? This drive for a politicized field emerges from the desire to move beyond celebrating individual arts projects and good practice in arts behind bars and toward a recognition of the role of the arts more generally in social justice. There is furthermore the need to consider intentions, ambitions, and long-term interventions and how this correlates with outcomes, as demonstrated by Sutherland’s project in South Africa and Staging Human Rights in Brazil.

In research practice, there is the need for researchers to engage with what arts behind bars offers prisoners and institutional life, as well as to consider the effects, impacts, and implications of the porous walls and fences made evident by art products circulating in the market. For researchers in this field, there ought to be a concentration on how to develop appropriate research and dissemination strategies that attend to the wide needs of arts programs and to move beyond the institutional “value.” Further, this ought to acknowledge the predominance of access to practice from established artists based in the Global North and set the challenge for how arts behind bars can challenge hegemonies in its reach and impact.

Having given an overview of some of the most prevalent approaches to doing arts in criminal justice, it will have become evident that there is an imbalance in access to practice. That is, companies and practitioners in the United States and United Kingdom in particular have been able to develop robust networks for dissemination of their practices. Although this is good for the development of best practice within national frames and accountability, it also leaves the study of this field unrepresentative of the work in parts of the world accustomed to operating without arts funding. The politicized abolitionist frame offered by Michelle Alexander’s excellent work The New Jim Crow (2012), offers a critique of the methods and practices in the arts in criminal justice as deeply imbricated within the systemic, punitive regime. As such, all arts practices behind bars should attend to how content can accurately reflect the particularities of context—poverty, race, and criminalization—and not simply the depoliticized, individualized issues of Western criminology—anger management, impulse control, and little understanding of consequence. By reading some of these practices via critical race studies, for example, we might see the need to insist on a black, native, aboriginal, or minority ethnic position to be placed centrally in arts methodologies within the criminal justice system. Thus, more attention to indigenous forms and an attempt to focus on how countries in the Global South “do” arts in criminal justice is necessary. While this overview is intended to point towards some of these practices, it is obvious that this is an important gap in scholarship and practice.

Practitioner and scholar Sarah Woodland (2016) writes reflexively about Living Stories, which was a participatory project with women prisoners in Queensland, Australia. Her project Daughters of the Floating Brothel (2015–2016) developed a radio drama connecting women prisoners’ current experiences with Australia’s history of convict resettlement. Janina Möbius’ research on Mexican prison practices (2017) has a focus on juvenile prisoners or “ninis”—(young people not in education and not in employment). She draws on similar ground to speak to the need to motivate and inspire young people who have been excluded in multiple ways, and for whom criminal lifestyles are a singular aspiration. In related research, she offers an analysis of how practitioners working with themes related to gender enable conversation about violence and oppression beyond narratives of victimization. Sutherland’s work, discussed above, similarly includes local forms and means of aestheticizing narratives. In the context of post-conflict Rwanda, Ananda Breed’s work (2009) considers how local indigenous forms of reconciliation mapped across healing and transformation of past pain and enabled imprisoned war criminals (genocidaires) to be performatively forgiven. The approach to arts in prisons in the Global South is seen in Young-Jahangeer’s work (2005, 2015), which signals the value of socio-drama. Such critical conceptions of practice seek to position work within the context of systemic inequality, racism, and institutionalized exclusions. The particularities of each context as well as the political necessities for electing to work with local art forms are important to note, especially as access to cultural forms, language, and celebrations of indigenous identities was curtailed and threatened by colonists, slave owners, and, latterly, hegemonic Western culture as well as access to funding.

Concluding Remarks

The examples raised here are not necessarily indicative of every practice of arts behind bars. The arts might offer insight, stimulate people to access further education, and encourage people to listen, develop skills related to mutuality and cooperation, and feel achievement at completing something. They are also always context-specific, and inflected by the culture/s outside, as well as the specific prison’s culture. If the pains of imprisonment can be better borne while people work together to develop themselves through the arts, then these kinds of projects should be supported, alongside other interventions that relate to humane custody. Still, there are undoubtedly projects that collude with punishment and promote the interests of the institution rather than abolition.

The motivations for prisoners to participate in the arts might be distinctive and not only related to the form itself: projects can offer people time out of cells; they can be an alternative to work or allow people to spend social time with others. These are beyond the scope of prison’s purpose to keep people secure in custody while they serve sentences as well as keep the public safe. Nonetheless, arts projects within criminal justice settings can be a powerful offering that can fundamentally challenge some of the exclusionary and systemic oppressions faced by incarcerated people. This kind of intervention is what might contribute better to engendering a sense of purpose, hope, and future focus for people who will ultimately be released back into their communities. What remains vital is for research to demonstrate how arts can be positioned as resistance to some of the negative impacts of incarceration—moving beyond individual prisoners’ motivation, skills development, and satisfaction at achievement and towards the longer-term benefits of sustained community integrated programs.

Further Reading

This section offers a select overview of some of the published work in the area for further reading. The further readings are grouped in subthemes, and largely focus on books and reports, with relatively few journal articles. This is due to the interdisciplinary nature of this research area. For scholars, there are plenty of articles to be discovered in journals aligned with anthropology, law, applied arts, and social work.

Research on Arts in Criminal Justice

Bilby, C., Caulfield, L., & Ridley, L. (2013). Re-imagining futures: Exploring arts interventions and the process of desistance. London: Arts Alliance (NAACJ).Find this resource:

    Carrabine, E. (2016). Picture this: Criminology, image and narrative. Crime, media, culture, 12(2), 253–270.Find this resource:

      Cheliotis, L. K. (Ed.). (2012). The arts of imprisonment: Control, resistance and empowerment. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

        Hughes, J. (2005). Doing the arts justice: A review of research literature, practice and theory. Canterbury, U.K.: The Unit for Arts & Offenders.Find this resource:

          Practitioner Perspectives

          Baim, C., Brookes, S., & Mountford, A. (2002). The Geese Theatre handbook: Drama with offenders and people at risk. Winchester, U.K.: Waterside Press.Find this resource:

            Bergman, J., & Hewish, S. (2003). Challenging experience: An experiential approach to the treatment of serious offenders. Oklahoma City, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes.Find this resource:

              Johnston, C., & Hewish, S. (2010). Criminal justice: An artist’s guide. Report for Arts Alliance. London: Arts Alliance.Find this resource:

                Lawston, J. M., & Lucas, A. E. (Eds.). (2011). Razor wire women: Prisoners, activists, scholars, and artists. New York: SUNY Press.Find this resource:

                  Peaker, A., & Johnston, C. (2007). Handbook for artists: Working in arts in criminal justice and crime prevention settings (5th ed.). Canterbury, U.K.: Anne Peaker Centre.Find this resource:

                    Weaver, L. (2009). Doing time: A personal and practical account of making performance work in prisons. In T. Prentki & S. Preston (Eds.), The applied theatre reader (pp. 55–62). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                      Williams, R. M. C. (Ed.). (2003). Teaching the arts behind bars. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

                        Narrative and Testimony

                        Graney, P. (Ed.). (2006). Keeping the faith 2006: Writings from women on the inside. Seattle, WA: Pat Graney.Find this resource:

                          Lamb, W. (2007). I’ll fly away: Further testimonies from the women of York Prison. New York: HarperCollins.Find this resource:

                            Lamb, W., & The women of York Correctional Institution. (2003). Couldn’t keep it to myself: Testimonies from our imprisoned sisters. New York: HarperCollins.Find this resource:

                              Levi, R., & Waldman, A. (Eds.). (2011). Inside this place, not of it: Narratives from women’s prisons. San Francisco: Voice of Witness.Find this resource:


                                Balfour, M. (Ed.). (2004). Theatre in prison: Theory and practice. Bristol: Intellect.Find this resource:

                                  Fraden, R. (2001). Imagining Medea: Rhodessa Jones and theatre for incarcerated women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Find this resource:

                                    Heritage, P. (2002). Stealing kisses. In M. Delgado & C. Svich (Eds.), Theatre in crisis?: Performance manifestos for a new century (pp. 166–178). Manchester: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

                                      Johnston, C. (2011). Drama games for those who like to say no. London: Nick Hern Books.Find this resource:

                                        McAvinchey, C. (2009). “Is this the play?”: Applied performance in pupil referral units. In S. Preston & T. Prentki (Eds.), The applied theatre reader (pp. 276–282). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                          McAvinchey, C. (2011). Theatre & prison. Basingstoke: Palgrave.Find this resource:

                                            McAvinchey, M. (Ed.). (in press). Applied theatre: Women and the criminal justice system. London: Bloomsbury.Find this resource:

                                              Trounstine, J. (2004). Shakespeare behind bars: One teacher’s story of the power of drama in women’s prison. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Find this resource:

                                                Thompson, J. (Ed.). (1998). Prison theatre: Perspectives and practices. London: Jessica Kingsley.Find this resource:

                                                  Thompson, J. (1999). Drama workshops for anger management and offending behaviour. London: Jessica Kingsley.Find this resource:

                                                    Young-Jahangeer, M. (2015). Evasive manoeuvres: Participatory theatre in the facilitation of counter-disciplinary action/inaction in a South African female correctional centre. Image and Text, 25, 217–237.Find this resource:

                                                      Visual Arts

                                                      Ahrens, L. (Ed.). (2008). The real cost of prisons comix. Oakland: PM Press.Find this resource:

                                                        Bliss, E., Chen, K. B., Dickison, S., Johnson, M. D., & Rodriguez, R. (2009) Prison culture. San Francisco: City Lights.Find this resource:

                                                          Arts in Prisons in the Global South

                                                          Möbius, J. (2017). Die Krux mit dem Kreuz: Passionsspiele im Jugendgefängnis San Fernando in Mexiko-Stadt. In F. Evers, K. Flade, F. Lempa, L. K. Seuberling, & M. Warstat (Eds.), Applied Theatre: Rahmen und Positionen (pp. 137–153). Berlin: Theater der Zeit.Find this resource:

                                                            The research leading to these results received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC grant agreement no. 295759.

                                                            Sutherland, A. (2013). “Now we are real women”: Playing with gender in a male prison programme in South Africa. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 18(2), 120–132.Find this resource:

                                                              Sutherland, A. (2015). Disturbing masculinity: Gender, performance and “violent” men. South African Theatre Journal, 28(1), 68–77.Find this resource:

                                                                Woodland, S. (2016). The art of living in prison: A pragmatist participatory aesthetic approach to participatory drama with women prisoners. Applied Theatre Research, 4(3), 223–236.Find this resource:

                                                                  Young-Jahangeer, M. (2005). Bringing into play: Investigating the appropriation of prison theatre in Westville female prison, KwaZulu–Natal (2000–2004). South African Theatre Journal, 19, 143–156.Find this resource:

                                                                    Digital Materials Links: Collections, Archives that are Openly Accessible

                                                                    What follows is a list of organizations, collections, and services that support arts in criminal justice. As this is a contingent field, dependent on funding and often with charitable status, what is included are the most established examples that give a taste of the range, scope, and values of prison arts. It is evident from this list (presented alphabetically) that there is much to be done to ensure documentation in the field, most notably from the existing and emerging practices in the Global South, where web-based presence for this sector is not yet entirely evident. This kind of list also runs the risk of marginalizing some of the practices done by individuals without affiliations or funding, as is often the case in places facing deprivation, since maintaining a web presence involves resources. This points toward the potential value of a global network in future that could serve as a repository for practices in order for arguments about criminal justice collaborations in the arts to shift beyond national borders and policies.

                                                                    National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice (UK). Promoting arts in the criminal justice system. This is an umbrella organization that delivers training, hosts events, and provides access to an evidence library that is extensive and growing.

                                                                    Inside by Artangel (UK). Inside—a project staging live streamed readings of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in Reading Gaol. Retrieved from

                                                                    Clean Break Theatre Company (UK). Clean Break works with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. Clean Break delivers an artistic and an education program based in purpose-built studios in North London.

                                                                    Compagnia della Fortezza (Italy). A long-running prison theater program that stages work professionally, and has toured Italy with the inmate company. (Site mostly in Italian.)

                                                                    The Conciliation Project (USA). A cultural project conceived of as a creative social justice organization, with a specific focus on race.

                                                                    Daughters of the Floating Brothel (Australia). A radio drama project led by Sarah Woodland and a team from Griffith University about histories and legacies of prison, incarceration, and female offenders.

                                                                    Fine Cell Work (UK). Fine Cell Work is a social enterprise that trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework to foster hope, discipline, and self-esteem.

                                                                    The Forgiveness Project (UK). UK-based charity that uses storytelling to explore how ideas around forgiveness, reconciliation, and conflict resolution can be used to impact positively on people’s lives, through the personal testimonies of both victims and perpetrators of crime and violence.

                                                                    Geese Theatre Company (UK). This company works through drama and theater for offenders and people at risk. This is one of the longest-running and most widely researched examples of prison theater.

                                                                    Good Vibrations (UK). Good Vibrations is a registered charity that helps prisoners, patients in secure hospitals, ex-prisoners, and others in the community to develop crucial life and work skills through participating in intensive gamelan (Indonesian bronze percussion) courses.

                                                                    Koestler Trust Arts by Offenders (UK). Koestler Trust is one of the largest arts charities in the United Kingdom dealing with cross arts through a national prison arts competition, as well as a mentoring service.

                                                                    Irene Taylor Trust (Music in Prisons) (UK). UK-based charity that develops collaborative music projects across the criminal justice system.

                                                                    Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated women (USA). Working with partners across San Francisco and sometimes beyond, with a focus on artistic performances, with leadership by Rhodessa Jones.

                                                                    Music in Detention (UK). Music In Detention (MID) works through music to give voice to immigration detainees and create channels of communication between them, immigration and detention staff, local communities and the wider public.

                                                                    Only Connect (UK). Only Connect provides training, support and creative opportunities to help prisoners, ex-offenders, and at-risk young people.

                                                                    People’s Palace Projects (UK). People’s Palace Projects (PPP) is an independent arts charity that advances the practice and understanding of art for social justice and is based at Queen Mary, University of London.

                                                                    Pimlico Opera (UK). Since 1991 Pimlico Opera has produced performances in prisons with mixed companies of prisoners and professional singers, musicians and performers.

                                                                    Playing for Time Theatre Company (UK). Playing for Time stages plays with prisoners and undergraduate students working together. Based in Winchester.

                                                                    Prison Arts Coalition (USA). National resource for those working in prison arts nationally in the United States.

                                                                    Prison Arts Foundation (UK). A specific focus on arts in Northern Ireland.

                                                                    Prison Creative Arts Project (University of Michigan) (USA). Arts education and advocacy project for collaborative partnership between students, faculty, and participants in prison.

                                                                    Prison Photography. An award-winning blog run by Pete Brook that covers photography in and of prisons (mainly in the United States).

                                                                    Rideout (UK). Rideout (Creative Arts for Rehabilitation) was established in 1999 in order to develop innovative, arts-based approaches to working with prisoners and staff within UK prisons.

                                                                    Second Shot (UK). Originally a production company set up as a social enterprise in HMP Doncaster, the model apprentices prisoners to film, graphic design, and performance projects.

                                                                    Shakespeare Behind Bars (USA). A theater-based program that engages specifically with plays by Shakespeare, staging them with prisoners. Subject of the documentary of the same name (Sundance, 2005).

                                                                    Synergy Theatre Project (UK). The organization has a focus on artistic projects with prisoners, offenders, and ex-offenders. They also create specific works for young offenders and young people at risk of offending.

                                                                    TIPP—Theatre in Prisons and Probation (UK). Based at the University of Manchester, the organization has a track record of developing projects and researching practices.

                                                                    Writers in Prison Foundation (UK). No longer operational as a national organization. A project that placed writers and artists in residencies in prisons across the United Kingdom.


                                                                    Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.Find this resource:

                                                                      Balfour, M. (2003). The use of drama in the rehabilitation of violent male offenders. Lewiston: Edwin Mellon Press.Find this resource:

                                                                        Breed, A. (2009). Participation for liberation or incrimination? In T. Prentki & S. Preston (Eds.), The applied theatre reader (pp. 148–154). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                          Grove, S. (2009, August 28). When criminals make a profit from their prison art. Newsweek.Find this resource:

                                                                            Heritage, P. (2004). Real social ties: The ins and outs of making theatre in Brazilian prisons. In M. Balfour (Ed.), Theatre in prison: Theory and practice (pp. 189–202). Bristol: Intellect.Find this resource:

                                                                              McNeill, F., Anderson, K., Colvin, S., Overy, K., Sparks, R., & Tett, L. (2010). Inspiring desistance? Arts projects and “what works.” Justitiele verkenningen, 37(5), 80–101.Find this resource:

                                                                                Peaker, A., & Vincent, J. (1990). Arts in prisons: Towards a sense of achievement. London: Home Office, Research and Planning Unit.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Sutherland, A. (2017, January 13). Personal Interview with A. M.Walsh.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Thompson, J. (2004) From the stocks to the stage: Prison theatre and the theatre of prison. In M. Balfour (Ed.), Theatre in prison: Theory and practice (pp. 55–76). Bristol: Intellect Books.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Thompson, J. (2011). Performance affects: Applied theatre and the end of effect. Basingstoke: Palgrave.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Walsh, A. (in press). What works: The affective and gendered performance of prison. In C. McAvinchey (Ed.), Applied theatre: Women and the criminal justice system. London: Bloomsbury.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Watson, A. (2009). “Lift your mask”: Geese Theatre company in performance. In T. Prentki & S. Preston (Eds.), The applied theatre reader (pp.47–54). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Young-Jahangeer, M. (2005). Bringing into play: Investigating the appropriation of prison theatre in Westville Female Prison, KwaZulu–Natal (2000–2004). South African Theatre Journal, 19, 143–156.Find this resource: