David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Art on Trial


Inmates Learn to Understand and Manage Anger Through Art

An anger management art therapy protocol for inmates

Posted Aug 28, 2014

It has been a year since I began this blog. In that time, I have posted many personal perspectives and ideas of art therapy in various forensic situations with a great deal of support and encouragement from others in the field. Consequently, I have gotten to hear from many art therapists and clinicians about their work in the forensic arenas.

This past year I also interviewed one art therapist (see Max Junge in “Mass Murderers—One Artist/Therapist’s Response) and I had one of them write her own post (see Jaimie Burkewitz’ “Drawing Alone: Making Art in Solitary Confinement”). These posts underscored how many others are out there doing excellent work and how important it is to communicate different perspectives by people with distinctive experiences.

During a recent conference, I led a master’s supervision session on Forensic Art Therapy. I suggested to those that attended that I wanted to expand this opportunity over this next year, and that I might solicit them and other art therapists with various forensic experiences to consider being a guest blogger or simply interviewed. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Thus, over the next 12 months I will try and use this blog to periodically communicate others’ experiences and ideas.

The following post was written by Laura Tuomisto ATR-BC, a colleague who graduated from the Florida State University graduate art therapy program in 2010.

Tuomisto is currently an art therapist in the Shenandoah Valley area where she works part time at her private practice, Shenandoah Art Therapy, LLC. She also works as an in-home clinician and program manager for Compass Counseling Services of Virginia.

As a student, she completed an internship in a men’s prison. During that time, she developed the Art Therapy Anger Management protocol with the prison’s psychologist and a fellow student. She later co-authored the article “Creating an art therapy anger management (ATAM) protocol for male inmates through a collaborative relationship” published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. This post emerged from that article.

An Anger Management Art Therapy Protocol for Inmates

by Laura Tuomisto ATR-BC  

Anger when fed, can create enough energy to lead to violence. Slowing down this process to help individuals gain insight into their patterns and how they can be better managed is difficult when this shift from emotion to action seems instantaneous. Add to this the challenge of working with male inmates, many of whom have learned that aggression is necessary to survive, and the idea of creating an effective anger management treatment protocol feels all the more daunting.

So, how can you bridge psycho-educational anger management curriculum with group therapy in a prison facility and receive feedback from the participants at the end of the experience that the group helped them with "breaking down the shell that was building towards anger," with "recognizing the ruts and steering out of them" and taught them "anger does not have control over me?"

Well, art therapy of course.

Developing a Protocol

As an art therapy graduate student at Florida State University, I had the privilege of completing my first internship at a men’s prison.

I confess I did not initially consider it a privilege. However, my apprehension was quelled with superior supervision and I now reflect on this experience as foundational for my approach and professional development as an art therapist.

The prison’s psychologist, a fellow intern and I met after each session to brainstorm on how to integrate art to support the facility’s anger management curriculum. We wanted the inmates to connect with the topic and to understand that manipulating the art was akin to manipulating their own thoughts and behavior. As a result, we developed the art therapy anger management (ATAM) protocol

Inmate and Intern: A Parallel Process

Inside a white cinder block rectangular room are two tables around which sit a psychologist, two interns, and six inmates. In the middle of the table lie multi-colored construction paper and glue--but no scissors. 

The group was instructed to create a “vehicle that could move on land using these two materials.” The vehicles symbolized each inmate’s thoughts and beliefs that"drove" them to anger. After creating a vehicle that could travel on land, the inmates were instructed to make changes to their vehicle so it could float or fly, allowing it to take an alternate path. Making changes to the vehicle served as a metaphor for changing thoughts and beliefs in order to reach a better emotional consequence. 

Because of the limited materials and the challenging directive, I believed the inmates would struggle and become quite frustrated. While some of the inmates did struggle, I was surprised to find most of them engaged in the task. The room became quiet; the inmates’ intense focus was not anticipated as they made detailed and intricate vehicles.

Motorcycle, with an added flotation device (shown in orange) to allow the vehicl

Motorcycle, with an added flotation device (shown in orange) to allow the vehicle to choose an alternate path

Something else occurred, which I now have enough distance to reflect on. While the inmates were discovering art as a way to express themselves freely, I was simultaneously discovering the potential of art therapy and witnessed the fruits of my training for the first time. 

I still remember the thrill I felt at seeing a member of the group realize that changing aspects of his vehicle, to allow it to take a different path, was the same process as changing his thoughts to find a healthier emotional response.. I also sensed something else that I couldn’t quite put into words then.  It was the investment and enjoyment from the inmates that I believe to be what Gussak described as allowing for a “healthy diversion from bleak surroundings” (Gussak & Virshup, 1997, p. 60).  It became clear that many of the inmates used the creative space to find temporary relief from their restrictive environment, to feel connected to others and to experience an internal locus of control.

Adding the art directives to correspond with the anger management curriculum helped make sense of the concepts, provided a visual metaphor and allowed the participants to experience and see the benefit of using the anger management techniques right there in session (Breiner et al., 2011).  Additionally, it created a space for the inmates to feel freer to express themselves and feel safer in connecting with one another.  

On a survey conducted at the end of the 13-week process, one participant wrote “I wouldn’t be able to put in words how much this class has already helped my life and decision making skills.” The long-term benefits for me are evident in my continued use of this protocol as well as in my passion for art therapy.

For more information, you may contact Laura Tuomisto at: laura@shenarttherapy.com.   To download a copy of the full article on which this post is based, please go here.


Breiner, M. J., Tuomisto, L., Bouyea, E., Gussak, D. & Aufderheide, D. (2011). Creating an Art Therapy Anger Management Protocol for Male Inmates Through a Collaborative Relationship. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology,  56(7), 1124-1143.

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