How important is it for inmates to foster and develop artistic creativity behind bars? In a recent article for philly.com, Stephanie Ogrodnik asserts that in-prison art, landscaping, and writing programs serve an important role in preparing inmates for release, changing the way they see the world around them, and even facilitating reconciliation between prisoners and victims.
“[T]here is great potential in reinforcing creativity behind prison walls,” says Ogrodnik. “By channeling energy into productive behavior and encouraging a positive outlook through responsibility and accomplishment, dozens of programs nationwide have utilized artistic expression as a means for change and rehabilitation.”
Ogrodnik highlights several programs in Pennsylvania intended to develop creative expression and thinking. One program in particular, the Mural Arts program in Philadelphia, has developed a Restorative Justice program that instructs current and former inmates on the finer points of mural painting, while allowing them to give a measure back to the community they once victimized. On one specific project named “Healing Walls,” victim’s rights proponents and inmates painted side-by-side, and despite initial discomfort, learned to work together. The result was a greater understanding and empathy for the other, as well as a measure of healing and reconciliation.
“What people have to realize is well over 90% of people in prison are coming out,” says Robyn Buseman, who manages the Restorative Justice Program. “And if we’re not doing anything with them while they’re in prison, they’re going to come out and commit more crimes, because the recidivism rate in Pennsylvania is between 60% and 70%.”
“I’ve seen it personally, this program can change lives,” adds Michael Whittington, a former inmate who now serves as the Restorative Justice Guild Coordinator for Mural Arts. “Each and every one of the graduates, the alumni, you can see the progress of when they first started, to when they graduated to now, it’s a big difference. They starting thinking: ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that. You got people looking up to you.’”[The prison population] is a population that is often thrown away, let alone regarded for their artistic nature,” concludes Ogrodnik. “However, as people like Michael Whittington continue to develop these programs, perhaps it is possible that we can continue opening up the dialogue within the community. Not only might we find greater value in arts programs in prisons, but we might recognize the value in the artists behind the walls.”