Art on Trial

Confessions of a serial art therapist

Art Therapy with a Recalcitrant Sociopath—What’s the Point?

Exploring why we struggle to provide therapy for the defiant and violent inmate

Trust me...

It's one thing to provide art therapy for a prison inmate that can benefit from it, for one where there is some hope for rehabilitation, for a future. But what about for a recalcitrant sociopath, one who will never parole, one who is resistive to treatment—what is the purpose of providing them such services? I must confess, in moments of frustration I often asked this question of myself.  

Vince

Vince was a middle-aged white man who looked much older; likely because of the years he had already spent in prison. He was clean-cut and neat, making sure that his prison blues were well pressed.

He swaggered. He was confrontational. He expressed disdain for others, claiming intellectual superiority. He attacked and assaulted other inmates and occasionally staff. He was considered dangerous.

He was admitted to the prison psych unit after seriously slicing his wrists.

Several years before, Vince had planned a bank robbery with a small gang. Despite a fairly detailed scheme, he did not account for the silent alarm. A gunfight with the police resulted in one officer getting shot in the leg. Recognizing the hopeless situation, Vince took a bank employee hostage and fled the scene. As the police closed in, he shot his hostage in the head, killing him instantly. When asked later why he did this, his chilling response was simple: “If he was stupid enough to get caught as a hostage, he deserved to die.” Vince was sentenced to “life without” for murder.

His callousness and lack of remorse was cited throughout his file. 

Given his behavior, it was originally believed that he cut his wrists to get onto the psych unit. The single-cell placement, psychotropic medications, and the policy that those on the unit would still earn time—despite not having to work—made it a popular destination.

However, Vince’s serious wrist-cutting attempt resulted in severe blood loss and a short-term coma. After he regained consciousness and was deemed healthy enough, he was transferred to our psych unit. He claimed he tried to kill himself to demonstrate how “stupid the staff” were and that he was smarter than them; they would be unable to stop him from doing what he wanted. He stressed he was in control and that he “would die when I choose.” 

Because of Vince’s tendency to mouth off in other therapy groups, the treatment team decided that he might benefit from art therapy services. It was thought that in this ‘non-verbal’ group Vince could do the least damage—truly a resounding endorsement for my services.

Surprisingly, despite his feelings that such groups were a waste of time, he not only participated, he bragged that he excelled in the art making. What did it matter if I let him hold onto this fallacy? It got him to attend.

The set up...
Notwithstanding his well-established defenses, his art pieces clearly revealed his sociopathic dynamics. One art therapy session was spent constructing sculptures out of handmade paper. Although certain three-dimensional materials, such as clay, were not allowed in the prison as they were considered a security risk, art therapists learn to become creative faced with such limitations. One such compromise employed making paper that could then be molded and shaped when wet, retaining the shape when dried. I had the participants make two sheets, one for a base and the other piece to be shaped as they saw fit.

On the top, wrinkled piece of handmade paper Vince wrote “Do Not Lift.” Of course, you are compelled to do so.

When doing so, you are faced with the message “Bite me” on the piece of paper underneath.  It’s funny. You laugh. The officers laugh. Other inmates laugh. However, you were just assaulted. Everyone who ignored the warning was assaulted—if stupid enough to disregard the message you “deserve what you get.” Or so he said.

The assault...

Or, take for example, his mask depicted at the top of this post [see the previous post on mask making and their benefits here]. He drew a devil's face. Underneath it says, “Trust me.” It’s funny. It’s ironic. The dynamics continued—if stupid enough to ignore the devil, you deserve the misery it will bring.

If he is using the art to "assault" people, then why do it?

The answer is simple—because I would much rather be assaulted through the art piece than with a chair. Because, sometimes, art therapy isn’t about the inmate, but it is about making the environment around the inmate a safer place to be. If he expressed his aggression, his utter disregard for others, his sense of superiority and lack of remorse through a less harmful drawing, paper sculpture or mask, then he may not have felt a need to express his dominance physically.

Or perhaps, it is about the inmate. Granted, his internal dynamics would likely not change -they were fairly well ingrained. But if he expressed himself in a manner that was more acceptable to both the inside and outside culture, then he may have been less likely find himself in situations that sent him to “the hole”, to segregation. It is also likely that cutting his wrists was a result of his own sociopathic dynamics turned inward --“If I was stupid enough to get caught I deserved to die.” If so, then through other means of expression, this original dynamic may have no longer dominated.

Perhaps, through such a less harmful means of aggressive expression, he became more productive, less destructive. Art therapy may not “cure” the recalcitrant, sociopathic inmate; but it may make for a safer environment.

References

 D. Gussak & E. Virshup (1997). Drawing time: Art therapy in prisons and other correctional settings. Chicago, IL: Magnolia Street Publishers.

 

Note: follow me on Twitter @davegussak

David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, is professor and chairperson for the Florida State University Department of Art Education, and Clinical Coordinator of its Graduate Art Therapy Program.

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