NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Creativity, cultural rights and wellbeing in prisons

Australia is now entering into a “second convict age”. This was the bold assertion made by Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh in his recent report on the rising rates of incarceration in Australia. Currently more than 10.74 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world, and since 2000 the world prison population has grown by almost 24%.

By Dr Sarah Woodland

Australia is now entering into a “second convict age”. This was the bold assertion made by Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh in his recent report on the rising rates of incarceration in Australia [1]. Currently more than 10.74 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world, and since 2000 the world prison population has grown by almost 24% [2]. With the global proliferation of prisons, refugee camps, immigration detention centres and heavily policed neighbourhoods, there is reason to believe we are addicted to incarceration, more inclined to deprive our fellow citizens of liberty than do the work required to build cohesive communities.

The extent to which the arts are supported by state correctional systems, and the ways in which they are acknowledged and valued, varies across different jurisdictions. A common feature, however, is the belief that participation in the arts can develop technical and life skills that will contribute to rehabilitation.

The arts have always had a strong presence in prisons, with visual art, music, dance, drama and media all featuring in the educational, recreational and criminogenic programming of correctional systems across the globe. Outside officially sanctioned arts programs, those who are incarcerated will invariably turn to creativity as a way of making sense of (and escaping) the experience of imprisonment.

The extent to which the arts are supported by state correctional systems, and the ways in which they are acknowledged and valued, varies across different jurisdictions. A common feature, however, is the belief that participation in the arts can develop technical and life skills that will contribute to rehabilitation. This approach aligns with a neoliberal criminal justice system that places responsibility for reform within the individual, as opposed to addressing the systemic inequities and injustices that drive mass incarceration.

Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.

The global crisis of mass incarceration can no longer be ignored, nor can it be attributed to a rise in crime – in Australia, rates of imprisonment have increased as crime rates have gone down [3]. This is in part the result of a “tough on crime” political agenda that apparently plays well with the public, despite delivering very little return on taxpayer investment. The privatisation of prisons has seen the perverse commodification of criminality that can only lead to more prisoners for increased profit. In the US, the over-imprisonment of African Americans has been described as the “new Jim Crow” [4], reflecting a continuation of white supremacist systems of oppression and control that go back to slavery. The deeper crisis in Australia and other settler-colonial nations is the over-representation of First Nations peoples (and particularly women) in the prison system and its surrounding “carceral webs” of youth detention, child protection and over policing that exist beyond the physical architecture of the prison [5].

Recognising this necessitates refocusing the conversation about the value of the arts in prison away from their utility in terms of rehabilitating individuals, and towards their role in healing communities and “rehabilitating” (or dismantling completely) the systems and policies that result in mass incarceration.

A first step is recognising that engagement with arts and culture is a human right. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” [6]. Further, the rights of Indigenous peoples to their culture have been recognised by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) [7]. Adopting a rights-based approach to arts and culture in prisons invites an activist stance, acknowledging the personhood of those who are imprisoned and giving weight to the oft-cited “humanising” value of creativity in these dehumanising spaces.

Another key step is to recognise and value the connection between culture, artistic expression and wellbeing for individuals and communities being subjected to cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

For incarcerated First Nations peoples, this is crucial. The right to express culture through creative practice is a matter of survival, connected to ontological imperatives of identity, community and Country. There is an urgent need for governments to recognise this and allow First Nations communities to take control in developing their own culturally-focused programs to support wellbeing in every strand of the carceral web.

Over the past 20 years, I have led drama, theatre and performance programs in prisons in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. I have also witnessed prison-based performances and theatre workshops and spoken with many practitioners and incarcerated artists about the work. Across all of these projects, some recurring themes emerge. We know that artistic practice is a generative form of agency, enabling us to transform ourselves and our world. This is heightened in prison, as it provides artists with an alternative self-image to that of “prisoner” or “criminal”, empowering them to reimagine their place in the family, community and wider society. Artistic practice can break through the sometimes-rigid, internalised codes of survival that people cultivate in response to traumatic life experiences outside, and the prison’s volatile and coercive regimes inside. As such, it enables an expression of full humanity. This is further heightened when those “outside” are able to witness these expressive acts, as it highlights the individual lives and voices behind the statistics and creates a restorative space of shared understanding and community healing.

In my experience, creative practice in (and around) the prison system invites us to take an imaginative leap – an enactment of liberation from what is, and a movement towards what might be. It can bring about a vision for the future that does not rely on punitive approaches to crime and justice, but instead creates space for healing the harms associated with colonisation, systemic marginalisation and trauma that ultimately affect us all.


References

[1] Leigh, Andrew. 2020. “The Second Convict Age: Explaining the Return of Mass Imprisonment in Australia.” Economic Record  96 (313): 187-208. doi: 10.1111/1475-4932.12536

[2] Walmsley, Roy. 2018. World Prison Population List (Twelfth edition). World Prison Brief, Institute for Prison Policy Research. https://www.prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/wppl_12.pdf

[3] Leigh, Andrew. 2020.

[4] Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

[5] Anthony, Thalia. 2020. “Settler-Colonial Governmentality: The Carceral Webs Woven by Law and Politics.” In Questioning Indigenous-Settler Relations, edited by S. Maddison and S. Nakata, 33—53. Singapore: Springer.

[6] UN General Assembly,1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Paris: United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[7] UN General Assembly, 2007, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. New York: United Nations: https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html


Dr Sarah Woodland is a researcher, practitioner, and educator in performing arts, theatre and interdisciplinary arts. She has over 25 years’ experience in the arts and cultural sectors in Australia and the UK, has published widely in scholarly arts journals and texts, and has taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses in theatre, drama and performance. In her current role as Dean’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne, Sarah is leading a program of research into performing arts, social justice and wellbeing.

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