Inmates Recover Identity Through Art

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Popular culture often portrays prison as an unruly environment where weaknesses are exploited, vulnerabilities are punished, and raw survivalism rules supreme.

To those on the outside, these notions exist as generalities that broadly define a space that is largely ungraspable without access to firsthand experience. Prisons remain separated from society, removing these realities from public consciousness, along with the humanity of the individuals who reside within them. For those on the inside, however, the actualities of prison are a matter of daily life—as are the emotional barriers they put in place to guard their own wellbeing.

Dr. David Gussak, art therapist and chair of Florida State University’s Department of Art Education, has spent more than 25 years working with inmates, using art to break down the walls they erect around themselves—a difficult task, given the setting and treatment they’ve grown accustomed to from other inmates and from the system itself.

“You’re in an environment where everybody is objectified,” Gussak tells BTRtoday. “It’s easier to handle somebody when you dehumanize them, so you take away their identity, you give them the same uniform, everybody has a number. It’s easier to control them because you’re not seeing them as real people. And of course they internalize that, and they become this criminal identity.”

The use of therapy in a rehabilitative situation isn’t surprising, but art therapy delivers a different kind of remedy. Creating art provides inmates a cathartic experience that helps them to channel their energy into work that, by its very nature, encourages them to let down their guard.

“Verbal therapy may or may not work, because they might lie to you, they might not tell you everything,” Gussak explains. “They keep these masks in place, but the art allows therapy to happen behind the mask. It allows us to get to what’s behind there without pulling it away, without leaving them vulnerable.”

Art’s immersive nature, he explains, is the main reason it works so well as a genre of therapy. The inmates often aren’t aware of what they’re doing, what they’re expressing, or where the art is taking them—an ideal outcome when dealing with individuals who are normally hyperaware of their surroundings.

“Sometimes they aren’t aware of what they’re succeeding, that the trajectory of what we’re doing is taking them to a place that allows them to escape, to sublimate their aggressive tendencies so that they have something to focus on,” Gussak says.

Perhaps the biggest value art therapy brings to the inmates themselves is a sense of individuality, something they likely lose sight of upon entering the prison system.

“The art itself is acceptable to both inside and outside culture, and so they can see themselves belonging to what’s outside,” Gussak says. “It allows them to reestablish that sense of identity.”

Of course, it might be hard to understand why someone would willingly dedicate their lives to helping those who seemingly cannot be helped. In one of his blog posts on Psychology Today, Gussak wrote about working with a sociopathic inmate who predictably didn’t garner much empathy from those around him due to aggressive and sometimes violent behavior. The prisoner’s attitude toward others was reflected in his art—the exact result Gussak or any art therapist could hope for.

“The art pieces he would do were funny, and he enjoyed making them because they were funny and they attacked other people,” he says. “But it did so in a way that created a safer environment. He wasn’t going to change, but at least he was able to restrain from aggressive acts because it was contained within the artwork. And everyone around him, the officers, the short-term inmates, the long-term inmates, were all now in a much healthier environment.”

Gussak saw firsthand the effect art therapy was having on the inmates he worked with, but he also knew the importance of quantifying it. Beginning in 2003, Gussak and colleagues began developing a number of empirical studies to measure whether art therapy worked among prison populations. He went on to publish a number of articles on his findings, which demonstrated that art therapy was effective in decreasing depression in prison populations by increasing problem solving, socialization, and internal focus and control.

“Everyone that’s in there, we know this is effective,” Gussak says. “But we do recognize that we need to show it to other people, to demonstrate numbers, and understand how those numbers translate for the program directors, wardens, and legislators to explain that these changes are essentially reducing cost in prison. It’s making inmates much more productive, and it’s making them less likely to increase in recidivism.”

With the resources available to him as chair of Florida State’s Art Education Department, Gussak is able to coordinate efforts both inside and outside of Florida to expand art therapy programs in corrections facilities across the country.

“What I would love to see is other art therapists taking these numbers and approaches and writing about it themselves, and really putting it out there. There’s more of us than people think, and I’d like to have all of them speaking about it and moving it forward,” Gussak says.

While the benefits to the inmates themselves and even their immediate environments seem clear, perhaps the greatest value of art therapy is its ability to reveal the humanity in the population society marginalizes more than any other.

“It’s an interesting reaction when people see artwork from prison inmates for the first time,” Gussak says, “and they realize this is work that they can do or their children can do, and then all of a sudden it becomes more real to them. There’s this awakening that these are real human beings on the inside. There’s a fine line between us and them, and I don’t think we always recognize that.”