The difference art makes: Fort Hare researchers make out a case for improved art education in prison

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The Department of Correctional Services should use the services of qualified creative art teachers to reduce boredom, conflicts, and recidivism and to promote self-expression and opportunities among women offenders, researchers from the University of Fort Hare found.

“Offenders need creative art resources and professional educators to improve their adult learning, and their knowledge about the value of creative art education programmes to their humanity.” This according to the University of Fort Hare’s Dr. Siphe Potelwa and Professor Emmanuel Olusula Adu from the University of Fort Hare.

Their research explored how a creative art education program can help women prisoners deal with their emotions and also escape bad experiences during their incarceration. 

“In South Africa, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) expects that incarcerated adult [women] offenders will quickly change their lives because of confinement. Most of the [women] were very sad that creative arts education was[removed] from the holding cells, not recognised and not supported as a component of Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) within correctional centres.

This research aimed to understand the reasons for the lack of support for creative art education programmes [in the prison context],” the researchers explained.

Very few qualitative studies are available to show the value of art education in prison. Creative art education for women prisoners has greatly improved globally. Correctional authorities also recognise these as a valuable addition to rehabilitation programs in some places. In other countries, however, considerable opposition to introducing art programs in prison as part of the offender rehabilitation process remains.

The participants for this study were four incarcerated adult women at the Medium-C correctional centre in East London, South Africa. They all had creative art portfolios that included drawings, crafts and paintings.

They also were women who demonstrated their determination to continue with their art in prison. 

“It is very sad that despite all the gains of this country, incarcerated adult [women] offenders cannot have even one professional creative art educational teacher or intern. This study provides an understanding of the perception of incarcerated adult female offenders who took the deliberate decision to not be deterred by the barriers and challenges they encounter. They refused to be passive and do nothing while incarcerated even when their artworks were seized by the warders during search operations. The encouragement currently provided by the warders and senior officials turned out to be inadequate for creative art education … in the correctional centre,” the researchers wrote.

The study further highlighted a lack of art resources, books on art and educators as major barriers to implementing these programs.

To find out more about the impact of art programs on women prisoners, the researchers studied the data they collected to look for aspects of creative art education, that influenced the correctional centre to support and recognise the art programme for the rehabilitation of adult women offenders by allowing them to develop their skills of creative independence. 

Their findings included that while creative artworks of adult women offenders were seized as punishment, creative art education programmes are perceived as a harmless advantage for offenders in terms of discipline, self-expression and personal transformation. 

“Data gathered from offenders resulted in a greater understanding of their lifestyle and expression through their creative artworks. Researchers used observation, interviews and focus groups to add further context to the data collected.

The research concluded that a creative art education programme can contribute to personal skills development, personal change or transformation, self-expression, and the positive self-worth of adult women offenders. 

“The results showed that creative art education allows and develops confidence, and challenges offenders’ low self-esteem. Therefore, there needs to be advocacy for creative art education for incarcerated adult

[women] to be taken into consideration as for other academic subjects offered by correctional centres.”

The paper concludes that access to art resources would encourage more offenders to participate in the program and could be used as a tool to develop discipline under women prisoners. 

“Creative art education is a communication strategy that allows those who normally remain silent to voice their feelings through creative artwork, either by drawing and painting on canvas or paper.”

The paper also calls for more research to be done to “expose the importance of creative art education programmes” and to improve this aspect of adult education in correctional centres.