David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Art on Trial

Art Therapist: Ambassador in the Prison Subculture

How can an art therapist negotiate the primitive prison subculture? Compromise.

Posted Apr 12, 2016

I’ve interacted with many art therapists over the years who want to work in prisons, with the intention of providing their own form of creative expression to help the population. Some of them, while well-meaning, become frustrated wondering why the setting doesn't embrace them. They are surprised and disappointed at the inmates’ reluctance to participate and the officers’ resistance to bring people to their sessions. Some entering art therapists have difficulty accepting the limitations to the materials they are allowed and the services they provide. In short, they may have difficulty adjusting to the distinct subculture within the walls.

Halden Prison-Google Free Image
Source: Halden Prison-Google Free Image

Inside there is a population that is “once removed”; they no longer belong to the society or culture at large, the one of which the art therapist belongs, and thus do not necessarily conform to the expectations the therapist brings with him or her.

So, what is a clinician to do?

The art therapist is an ambassador within—to be effective, he or she has to learn the cultural nuances of all populations inside.

Dave Gussak
Source: Dave Gussak

This very issue was addressed in the book Drawing Time, published almost 20 years ago. This concept was then dubbed “The Compromise Option”.  In essence, every post or article written in some way embodies this very notion.

I confess that the following summary is simplistic in nature and requires a great deal more exploration and examination, too much that is allowed within the brief space allotted for this blog.

It has been my experience that, in prison, the entering clinician may believe that the setting is made up of two opposing groups—the inmates and the correctional staff—and that he or she belongs to neither. Both sides may, in turn, suspect him or her motives and place within the system. As a result, the therapist may eventually find him or herself choosing between three options:

Option 1—The clinician can be pulled towards either group of the dyadic relationship, and “side” with either the officers or the inmates.

This option is ineffective in that if the clinician is identified with one of the two groups, the other one may suspect and challenge the clinician’s very place in the system. If he or she begins to identify strongly with the correctional personnel, he or she may become somewhat punitive, believing that the inmate population is there to be controlled and punished. This may result in them no longer understanding how effective they could very well be in this institution.  In fact, I have known clinicians who believe that the inmates did not deserve their care, and consequently resented having to go in. Contrarily, he or she may become overly empathic and solicitous, identifying strongly with the “disenfranchised, misunderstood” inmate population, forgetting that they are indeed inside for a reason. As a result they may be taken advantage of and manipulated by the inmates for their own ends, and are seen as soft by the correctional staff. One colleague disregarded the institutional rules and gave something to an inmate as she thought it had therapeutic benefit. The inmate told the staff, and as a result, she was walked out of the facility for giving the inmate an “unsanctioned gift.”

Option 2—The clinician, afraid to be seen as siding with either group, remains neutral.

Valentina Castro, used with permission
Source: Valentina Castro, used with permission

Although this may sound harmless, this in fact leaves the clinician impotent. He or she will be perceived as ineffective, stuck in between two opposing sides afraid to move. They may even be ridiculed as those inside may wonder—appropriately—just what that person is doing inside. Nothing is risked but nothing is changed. Eventually the therapist goes through the day focused on nothing and accomplishing little.

Option 3—The clinician can compromise.

This sounds quite simple, and may in fact earn a “duh” from those of you who read this far. But it's much more complicated than that.

In this option, the clinician understands that there are subcultural nuances that exist, and that he or she refrain from imposing his or her own perspectives and biases on those inside. In turn, he or she manages to compromise, learning the ability to see all perspectives. However—and this is where it gets tricky—in order to be accepted by all involved the person can’t be seen as compromising. If either group suspects or perceives that the clinician accepts the others’ perspectives, then he or she may very well be rejected.

As you can imagine this seems exhausting if not impossible.

However, art therapists have the very tools that allow for such a compromise to take place. They have the art.

Dave Gussak
Source: Dave Gussak

One of the benefits of art therapy is that it is a non-verbal means of expression and identity reformation. As indicated in previous posts [as indicated here] verbal disclosure may either be suspect or leave one vulnerable and weak. In this case, neither side needs to know that art therapy provides an opportunity for true expression. Discipline and security are maintained yet personal and cultural identity is reinforced while emotional irregularities are expressed in a healthy and productive manner. I indicated in this post [here] that art therapy works behind the mask the inmates put in place to survive. Similarly, art therapy permeates the system, not requiring wide scale, institutional change in order to succeed.

To be effective, the clinician entering the system for the first time needs to accept that he or she is not going to reform the established process but may in fact use the art to compromise without appearing to do so.

Not everyone subscribes or will be accepting of this theoretical proposal. I remember at a recent conference presentation, an attendee took umbrage in my charge that to succeed we must negotiate with and within the system. She indicated that such compromise, to accept “the way it's always been done” is what allows negative systems to continue; that the notion of changing things from the inside is ineffective and a revolution must be instigated.

That’s all fine and good, but in the act of tearing down the walls the people who we go inside to help get lost in the rubble. If we focus on the much needed prison reform we lose the ability to provide care to those inside this non-therapeutic environment. And to provide the care, we need to focus on what we can accomplish within the limitations imposed by the subculture in which we are entering—and without giving in nor rebelling, the art allows us to infiltrate the primitive dynamics and facilitate care.

Dave Gussak
Source: Dave Gussak

In a series of studies conducted to determine the efficacy of art therapy in prison [see posts here, here and here], art directives ranged from simple to complex, individually focused to group focused. It began with a simple name embellishment, re-introducing and reinforcing a sense of self. As the sessions progressed, the inmates developed personal symbols out of Model Magic, completed a draw and pass in which each person added to a drawing that was passed around, ultimately creating a group paper sculpture such as a shared dream environment. The art making provided a means to work with, and create bridge to, the inmates. By accepting their art, in essence, they were accepted. They were empowered and seen as worthy.

Dave Gussak
Source: Dave Gussak

The staff did not feel threatened by what they perceive as the elementary, at times, infantile production of art making, and in fact, encouraged it. They also, at times, valued the artistic production of those whom they supervised, recognizing those that created as real people. 

Over the course of the art therapy sessions, the norms of the facility were challenged, and a sense of identity, value and self-control evolved. The norms remained intact as the art allowed the process to occur without rupturing the sub-cultural bubble.

Compromise occurred, but was not revealed. 

Gussak, D. & Virshup E. (eds.). (1997) Drawing Time: Art Therapy In Prisons And                                  Other Correctional Settings, Chicago, IL: Magnolia Street Publishers.