David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Art on Trial


Art Therapy in Prison Is Social Justice

Art and art therapy promote social justice with the disenfranchised inmate.

Posted Feb 11, 2016

Over the past ten years, the FSU Department of Art Education has teamed up with the FSU Department of Interior Architecture and Design to co-host the Art and Design for Social Justice Symposium. During each of these events, I have spoken on the role of art and art therapy in prison. This culminated during the last symposium, held this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in a role as member of a plenary session hosted by our keynote speaker Mark Randall, Principal of WorldStudio Inc. During this session, the panel members—Professor of Interior Architecture and Design Jill Pable, Assistant Professor of Interior Architecture and Design, Kenan Fishburne and Art Instructor Michael Austin Diaz, and I—were asked a series of questions about how we saw our roles in social justice. This forced me to reflect on the very notion of whether or not working in prison is social justice.

Let me explain.

Dave Gussak
Source: Dave Gussak

It has been my experience that when others speak of social justice, they refer to how the victims, the downtrodden, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, may be uplifted through social good and collective effort. Yet, few champion the need to help prison inmates. The common, uneducated notion is that such inmates do not deserve such support and attention; they are criminals, they have broken societal laws, and therefore do not deserve the support of those to whom they have turned against. In fact, many people may believe that the only thing that Social Justice and Criminal Justice have in common is merely the second word.

I know this sounds harsh. In fact, some people do not believe this. Certainly I have found others who have agreed that correctional facilities can be a real means of rehabilitation. The very people who actually read my blog are likely to be of this ilk. However, I have certainly found myself often having to defend my place in these penal arenas.

Thus, my constant reflection on how—or if—art therapy in prison is social justice.

The questions asked by Mr. Randall during the plenary session provided me an opportunity to reflect on the role of the art therapist in prison facilitating social justice.

Dave Gussak
Source: Dave Gussak

Part of the role of a social justice activist is to assure protection and equality for the least advantaged members of society. Those who subscribe to social justice promote “civil liberties, human rights, opportunities for healthy and fulfilling lives…” (citation can be found here). 

There is the “famous” quote often put in the mouth of Gandhi: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”.

Granted, Gandhi never actually said this.

Does it make the statement any less true?

Inmates embody the most vulnerable, the disenfranchised. Their identity is stripped away, and they are given a number and uniform to reinforce their loss of self, disempowering and objectifying them, all in the name of safety and security. Never mind that such acts further reinforce their separation from society, making it challenging to reintegrate once given the chance. They often struggle to knock off the label they have been given, making it difficult, at times impossible, to be re-accepted by society. They are known as convicts. This is especially arduous for those who are imprisoned with a mental illness.

It’s not coincidental that the original social justice movement emerged in the 1960s out of criminal justice as prison reform became necessary. However, over the years the notion of social justice has morphed into something more general, more en vogue—even while prison reform continues to be a struggle and inmates are locked up to be forgotten.

Dave Gussak
Source: Dave Gussak

Recognizing that those in prison are a mirror for the society from which they emerged is the first act of true social justice. Giving them a voice, a new label, a sense of self, would help them to rise above the quagmire they have found themselves. And art can help that happen. Bringing art therapy inside the walls is an act of social justice.


Popular media depicts prison inmates as violent, aggressive sociopaths. While there are certainly some inside who are like that—perhaps created by the very system in which they now reside—the majority of them are vulnerable, with a mental illness, and dependent on drugs, caught up in a revolving door system that refuses to let them exit. And because of the survival of the fittest culture developed inside, expressing such vulnerabilities may be detrimental to their own survival.  However, as indicated in previous posts (here, here and here) art therapy provides a non-verbal opportunity for inmates to re-label themselves and gain a healthier sense of self. It provides them an opportunity to reestablish an identity above that of inmate.

Maria Martinez, in her article “The Art of Social Justice” argued that [arts’] purpose”… is to engage participation….[it] activates, stimulates, educates, agitates, delights, promotes, prevents, provides options, intervenes, inspires, transforms, crosses cultures, honors traditions, unites, entertains, and heals in safe, accessible, and relevant ways " (p.8).

Dave Gussak
Source: Dave Gussak

Art becomes the great equalizer, humanizing those that have been previously dehumanized. Only when someone creates are they recognized as being alive. Art breaches the walls, providing a message to those outside. Specifically, art therapy allows the inmate to express him or herself in a manner acceptable to both inside the prison and the outside culture.

In a previous post, I wrote

Art, we hope, seems to evoke humanity in most people. They associate it with expressiveness, sensitivity, creativity—in sum, traits that seem antithetical to those assigned to prisoners. Even people who do not consider artistry a real career admire artists. Hence, the apparent paradox.

Providing an opportunity to those who have been disenfranchised, ignored and made into pariahs to be enveloped back into the societal fold is the very definition of good social justice. Art therapy offers this opportunity. Right?

Martinez, M. X. (2007). The art of social justice. Social Justice, 34(1), 5-11.