The Healing Power Of Art Therapy In Prisions

The Healing Power Of Art Therapy In Prison



You have to be a bit of an opportunist to believe that art therapy could be successfully conducted within the prison system. Let’s get honest here, there is a lot of stigma around inmates within the prison system. They did an unfathomable crime and well, they are doing their time. Prisoners are often viewed as monsters with destructive attitudes, violent imaginations and could be a serious threat to society. Imagine this, you walk down the halls of a correctional facility, there are about three inmates to a cell, you hear the slamming of doors, the clanking of metal and unpleasant yelling that is just enough to make you want to crawl out of your skin with discomfort. The truth of the matter, is that the prison experience feels a bit animalistic, am I right? The questions that remain are, how did these inmates get to this point of being in prison? What happened in their previous journey that lead them to this very moment? And most importantly how could something so simple such as art help heal something so complex such as an inmate in prison? I am here to tell you that as the art therapy process progresses with individual inmates, it helps the prisoner peel back each layer in their life creating understanding of their past, finding hope within the future, provides strong coping mechanisms for the present day and helps shed the undeniable labels that have been placed upon them throughout their life. 



Recently, a graduate student, Casey Barlow, who spent the most recent semester working in a local men’s prison, asked one of her clients “What if anything, did you get out of this experience?” The inmate’s response was formidable; His eyes lit up, he sat upright, and he enthusiastically exclaimed, ” oh that’s easy, now when I look at myself, I know I’m not bad” 

(Gussak, 2016)



 What is art therapy? 

Art therapy traces back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where it was used to express rituals, religious customs, and personal beliefs.  

You may be wondering, what exactly is art therapy and how is it used in the modern world? Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy using a multitude of medias such as painting, drawing, sculpting, dance, music, excreta. The artistic process is used as the primary source of communication. Art therapy is designed to help individuals improve their psychical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. It’s important that the art therapist and the client have a trusting bond, and together they can co-create the perfect program to help accommodate to the client’s personal needs in order to help the client heal.  

How exactly does this work you may ask? “In the therapeutic relationship, the art therapist and the client are engaged in working together to understand the meaning of the art produced. For many clients it is easier to use non-verbal form of communication and, by relating to the art therapist, makes sense of their own experience through the art object which provides a focus for discussion, analysis and reflection. As the artwork is usually concrete, there is a memory of the therapeutic process in the making of the object and in the interaction between therapist and client. Transference develops within the therapeutic relationship and also between therapist, client, and the artwork, giving a valuable ‘third dimension’ or three-way communication.” (Case & Dalley, 2006) The client does not need to have any previous artistic experience in order for art therapy to be successful. As art therapy is less about accuracy of the art being produced but rather about the emotional experience that unfolds when the art is being made. 


Are prisoners an oppressed group? 

Are inmates in prison a part of an oppressed group? It is believed by some people that inmates in prisons are not oppressed because they have committed a crime, were arrested and now are being punished for their actions. However, for those who believe that prisoners are not oppressed have you ever given any thought to what led up to an inmate’s life prior to prison?  

“I believe this occurs prior to prison as well as within. Some may be inside because of how they were perceived and rejected by the greater society; Not just because of their crime, but because of other factors, including where they lived, the color of their skin, the god to whom they pray to. Some have posited that they were previously in a repressive situations, saw no way out, committed a crime, and ended up in prison, perpetuating a cycle of oppression. This is not denying that those who committed a crime should be punished; the justice system is established to protect society and penalize those who break the rules. However, some argue it is easier for select people to find themselves within the justice system because of who they are just as much as what they did”. (Gussak, 2016) 

Oppression is built into our society and the frightening thing is, is that half the time we don’t even realize it is there. What is a good example of this? The prison system is an excellent example. ” on the surface it seems simple enough: you committed a crime, you’ll go to jail. Simple.” But the unfortunate truth about the system is that it makes it a lot harder for the marginalized population to stay out of jail. ” Racial profiling is the practice of scrutinizing and in some cases, directly monitoring people based on their perceived race. This is not only not illegal nationally (although it is illegal in some states) it’s a thriving practice.” What is the percentages of the marginalized population? Together African Americans and Hispanics comprised 58% of the prisons population in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately a quarter of the US population. This statistic significantly feeds into the oppression that has been taking place within the prison system. 

(Reading, 2014) 

Once the inmate is inside the system, oppression is perpetuated. “Security is obtained through the objectification and infantilization of the inmate; making them less human” (Fox 1997). Once the inmate goes through the system their identity is stripped away as they are given a number and a uniform. This seems to be reinforcing their loss of self and disempowers their original identification as a human being, am I right?  This is the problem with the prison system, they destroy an individual’s identity and dignity all in the name of safety and security. This process leaves an inmate with a huge lack of self-worth, a lack of self-forgiveness, and creates a major challenge for the inmate to see beyond their mistakes in order to better their future and to become a better person. 


“Even today such staggering numbers paint a sobering reality which suggests that a young African male who starts kindergarten in the fall of 2006 has a better chance of finding himself under the supervision of the penal system or being incarcerated than enrolling in a college or university twelve years later”  ( Howard,2008, p.959).  


How can art therapy help in prisons? 

The question is, how can art therapy help inmates who are exposed to such a debilitating and emotionally taxing environment? The media often portrays inmates in prison to be violent, aggressive sociopaths. Although some inmates within the system may behave exactly as the media describes, this could perhaps be because of the system that they live in. Often inmates are venerable, fighting an everyday battle with mental illness and some may be dependent on drugs. ” caught up in a revolving door system that refuses to let them exist”  

Because of the inmate’s vulnerabilities this could be detrimental to their survival due to the survival of the fittest mentality that exists within the system. Art therapy allows the inmates to regain a sense of self-worth and identity and provides a nonverbal opportunity for self-expression. 

There is no question that all human beings need a sense of freedom within our lives in order for us to feel fulfilled.  It seems as though inmates within the prison system are living a battle of trying to find inner freedom as strict rules and regulations are inflicted upon them. During the art therapy process it is important that the art therapist has a view through the lens of the inmate’s eyes, providing a safe space for the inmate to express their inner desire for freedom during their time together. Art therapy releases the ability to pour onto paper or canvas the inmate’s pent up emotions and deeper images of the unconscious. Even though inmates are labeled as deviants, many are inventive, quick-witted, active and ingenious. It seems as though the offender’s creativity was misguided and channeled in a negative way in the past. It is the art therapists job to channel the inmate’s talents in a positive creative direction helping them find a new perception of self and help them find their place in society. As the weeks go on and as the art work is being produced, the inmate will slowly be able to shed the previous views of being a menace to society, a disappointment to their family and the label of being a deviant person.  “Each artwork produced, in any medium, is more than just a statement; it is also a mirror of the persons thinking at that point of time.” (Laning, 2009,pg.115)  

Surprisingly, of all the professionals, the doctors, the social workers, the psychologists or the teachers who work in a supportive role with the prisoner, it is the artist who may have the closest personality trait” 

Interdisciplinary approach 

It is clear that art therapy is already intergrading two different disciplines that merge together creating one. While the art therapist is working in the prison system he/she also works closely alongside other professionals creating a strong team that together will accommodate to the inmates needs and help them build a healthy life. Although some psychologists and doctors refer inmates to the art therapist, the art therapist excepts all inmates that have an interest in creating art therapy with open arms. 


Every time I’ve been in prison I’ve always, you know, centered myself more around my art.….because it was a way to make ends meet [and deal with things]…and of course, there is a kind of hierarchy in prison and when you’re able to provide a service like that, you’re actually gain respect….nicknames are something that people always use in prison, and mine became “the artist” 

(keith Kilby) 

Often inmates who are able to get out of the prison system and experienced the healing process of art therapy program while being incarcerated, end up wanting to give back and do something greater for society. A beautiful example of this is the story of Keith Kilby.  

Keith Kilby has a compelling story and is a true testament for what art therapy was able to accomplish for him. He was able to shed the labels that were previously placed upon him, and art therapy gave him options that he may not otherwise would have had.  

Keith Kilby is currently 50 years old, has been arrested and imprisoned on four separate occasions, in four different states and the reasons for his arrests were self-described as “stupid reasons” such as drinking, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, trumped up charges, and false allegations made by loved ones. All of the times that Keith serviced, none of them were due to violent behavior. The time put together he spent being imprisoned was almost 11 and a half years. Despite of Keith’s hardships, “stupid reasons” for his arrests, and almost 11 and a half years spent in prison, art unfolded as his saving grace. Keith became the unit artist in Texas working directly with the warden. He also designed envelopes to send out for himself and for others. In South Carolina after he became the “unit artist” creating several murals near the visitation area. When Keith was serving time in Georga, He approached the wardens several times to start an art class. After putting together, a formal curriculum he was eventually granted permission. Keith’s hard work and perseverance payed off and over 80 people signed up for the class.  

“He said he would let me do it but I could only have one room for x amount of time. Well I got such an overwhelming response that I (went to him, and told him) This is something that could really benefit the other inmates. As it helps people express themselves in a more positive way, I think this would be a benefit to you to. So, he allowed me to actually have two classes…40 students each class” 

(Keith Kilby) 

For Keith this was a major personal victory, he was able to conduct two 3-4-month long art classes, inspiring and helping inmates to express themselves in a positive way. During Keith’s classes he not only inspired inmates to express themselves but he also was able to gain respect from the inmates .  

“There was never a guard posted. Never any kind of violent tantrums, no problems whatsoever, because they knew this was for them…they didn’t want to lose something like that. And there was so much more going on besides learning how to draw from 3 basic shapes and stuff like that. They could feel the art working, you know?” 

After Keith taught art for a year, he was certified as a fire fighter on the prison fire bridge, where he helped fight Georgia’s larges wildfire in history. Keith remained working on his art and finally came to the conclusion that his goal needed to be, to go back to school and to become an art therapist. Keith is currently off parole and is enrolled in his second year of community college, working towards becoming an art therapist and receiving all A’s and B’s in his courses. Keith has made some incredible accomplishments and continues to strive to better himself every day. He has successfully shed the label of being a prisoner and used art as a tool to rise above his past mistakes. To me Keith is a beautiful example of how art therapy can help an inmate heal past wounds and inspire a positive future outside of prison. 


To me Keith Kilby’s story is the perfect example of how art therapy pushes through pervious traumas in an inmate’s life, leaves behind the label of being a prisoner and is perfect model of how art therapy heals inmates in prison. Together the art therapist and the inmate can co create a safe environment for self-reflection and act as a mirror of the strengths that have been buried underneath the inmate. “Where so much artwork is created, it can be seen how the prisoners who produced many works, have gone on to study allied subjects at a university level. It was their own involvement in creativity which directed them on the journey of discovery” (Laning, 2009, pg. 115) Incredible outcomes have taken place for an inmate who has gone through the art therapy process and I find it to be so amazing that many go on to get a higher education with the hopes to help others. As we form our own personal opinions about the prison system, it is important to keep in mind the vulnerabilities that exists within each inmate and that they are in fact human beings regardless to their previous actions. It is when we use our abilities to help others, we can create growth and positive change within the community around us. 


Laning, J. (2009) Art Therapy In Prisons. London and New York: Tavistock Publications 

Case C. & Dalley T. (2014) Art As Therapy. New York: Routledge 

Gussak, D.(2016) Art Set Him Free: A Former Prison Inmate’s Story 

Gussak, D.(2016) Re humanizing through Art: Pressing On with the Discourse 

Reading, W. (2014) 5 Ways The US. Prision System Is More About Perpetuating Oppression And Not About Stemming Crime. 

Hogan, S. (2001) Healing Arts The History Of Art Therapy: Jessica Kingsley Publisher 

Schoenly, L Art Therapy In The Prision Setting (podcast) 

Howard, T.C. (2008). Who Really Cares? The Disenfranchisement of African American Males in PreK-12 Schools: A Critical Race Theory Perspective. Teachers College Record, 110 (5) 954-985. 

Carson, E.A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bulletin. 

Fago, D. C. (1989). A diversity of gifts: Vermont women at work. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press.

One comment

  1. More comments are available here, in Hypothes,is:

    I think the power of this paper is in affirming the humanity of those in the prison system, and offering the humanizing power of art as a challenge to the dehumanizing forced of the prison system and the social injustice that it feeds on. You make some nice connections between mass incarceration and the sociological dynamics that make poor people and people of color vulnerable. I enjoyed reading this, and hope you continue your commitment to this work!

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