Art Therapy

Development of the use of arts as rehabilitation for incarcerated persons mirrors the evolution of incarceration as a rehabilitative rather than punitive practice.[1] Artworks created during incarceration reflect their makers’ sense of the importance of rehabilitation as well as their understanding of the role of creativity in emotional stability. Both objective and subjective evidence indicate that arts programs within prisons, as outlets for self-expression and educational achievement, yield therapeutic and practical benefits. The benefits of prisoners’ art-making extend to the prison administration and society as a whole. Personal accounts by inmates and corrections staff, as well as statistical data about successful inmate rehabilitation through the arts demonstrate that programs fostering creativity are effective as both rehabilitation and therapy.

Prison arts programs play a special role in affirming inmates as humans capable of change and empathy. Arts are inherently communicative, connecting people emotionally to each other. When prisons make a conscious decision to embrace a rehabilitative model, work, education, vocational training, recreation, and arts programs alike become ways to engage inmates and give them skills applicable to the world outside of prison. This change is exemplified in reforms within the Women’s Division of the Colorado State Penitentiary in 1965. Upon release, a former inmate there initiated a reformist effort for this facility; since its establishment in 1871, this facility had had few rehabilitative programs. In addition to improving facilities and rehabilitative programs, all new staff now underwent in-service training, learning concepts of penology, psychology and other social sciences to that they could relate to inmates on a more intimate and human level.  Meanwhile new inmates were evaluated both physically and psychologically in order to determine the best treatment programs. New social and moral concepts were promoted through programs and activities that “involve the whole person” and which “encourage each inmate to develop skills and characteristics which may have lain dormant for a lifetime.”[2]

These changes within the Women’s Division of the Colorado State Penitentiary included the development of transformative arts. Women were given the opportunity to express their own emotional concerns, as shown in a play in which women “assert[ed] their humanity in a sterile environment.”[3] This theater project demonstrated suffering hidden from the outside world. Here, the women performed their daily routines for the audience and raised fundamental issues such as their forcible separation from their children or the arbitrary nature of the parole system. Their expression of painful experience was cathartic, allowing the women relief through releasing and sharing their emotions. Through this play the actors were not only able to connect with their emotions but also educate the outside world about the experience of incarceration and the loss of freedom.  The work explored what it means when the only form of communication with a loved one is through an audiotape, how it feels when a child does not know its mother, how the perception of reality is distorted when “life goes on, no matter who’s hurting.” The audience’s reaction showed that the play “successfully communicated the realities of prison life and that theatre still has the ability—as a form—to affect diverse audiences.”[4]

The development of programs in other arts has had similar effects on inmate rehabilitation. However, the implementation of prison arts programs in Colorado has been inconsistent because art has rarely been viewed as a necessity or priority in education or rehabilitation.  Nonetheless, many different art forms have from time to time been utilized—visual art, theatre, creative writing, music—as media through which inmates can express and connect with their emotions, create social connections with the outside world, and bolster their educational success. Prison arts programs range from the Walled in Art Shop in 1966 to the Interpreter magazine in the 1970s to the Writing on the Walls literary magazine of the 1990s, all alongside numerous other individually produced projects. Today the Prison Arts Coalition identifies eleven similar active programs in Colorado.[5] Some have been inmate-inspired, some begun by prison wardens, and some instigated by outside agencies and individuals, but all are expression of a reformist and rehabilitative impulse.


Nancys Skool House

One example of the arts program’s highly personal and contingent inception was in the 1980s and centered on Nancy Skeff, an employee at the Colorado Department of Corrections who gave inmates psychological diagnostic tests upon entering prison. During her brief testing sessions Teff treated inmates with respect and expected the same treatment in return. Disciplinary measures were rarely necessary after her sessions, and in ten years of testing she only officially “wrote up,” or generated written reprimands, for five inmates. Teff’s empathetic interaction with her testing subjects led to her interest in inmate artwork. Here, her genuine engagement broke a barrier of communication between herself and those entering incarceration; inmates were able to depict their difficult emotions in a somewhat distanced visual form meaningful to those viewing their situation from the outside. “Nancy’s Skool House,” the diagnostic room where she met with offenders, was completely decorated with inmate art from her collection of more than 3,000 pieces of work given to her, creating a therapeutic space for inmates to view their artwork in an atmosphere valorizing their experiences. Nancy eventually assembled a collection of inmate writing and art in a book entitled Four Walls in order to “individualize and identify the contributor as a separate entity in an environment where individuality and identity are systematically stripped away.” By publicly recognizing the significance of inmate artwork, Nancy validated experiences previously ignored, shunned, or suppressed. Inmates called Nancy “an oasis in the desert” or the “last concrete link with that ‘other’ world.”[6]

The Prison Creative Arts Project uses art similarly, for rehabilitative purposes, by connecting inmates with people outside of prison. This program not only facilitates the communication of stories from behind bars but provides inmates with skills in a variety of artistic forms. This ongoing organization trains college students to facilitate arts workshops, building a community by collaborating with incarcerated adults and youth, urban youth, and those formerly incarcerated. Theatre, dance, visual art, creative writing, poetry, and music workshops allow prisoners to create personally meaningful works that offer outsiders a glimpse into lives hidden from the rest of the world. Viewers began to see each inmate as “[a] human being who has the same thoughts, emotions, and inspirations as they do, and for that one moment, a major social and political barrier is shattered.” This program not only reveals prison art to the public, but art becomes a tool to prepare inmates for life outside of prison. Inmates participate in workshops that teach them artistic and practical skills in social justice work and yielding portfolios to present to parole boards, judges, schools, and employers. Additionally, recently released participants frame connections with citizens in arts communities, expanding their social networks, work opportunities, and creative outlets. Art as a therapeutic outlet at the same time builds social, creative, and communicative skills applicable to both the social and work worlds outside of prison.[7]

Arts programs provide inmates with invaluable opportunities for therapy and rehabilitation, but their positive impacts can be distorted in the media. Prisons are not generally focused on inmate rehabilitation. Arts programs are not standard. When prisons implement a rehabilitative model or when people or organizations bring in arts programs, these facilities often receive positive attention discordant with their characteristic practices. Headlines such as “Nancy, Her ‘Skool’ Go to the Hearts of Murderers, Rapists” perpetuate this misperception.[8] Another example is the Women’s Division of the Colorado State Penitentiary being called a “liberal prison,” making it “difficult for the casual visitor to understand the nature of the inhabitants’ suffering.”[9] Art therapists or proponents are sometimes depicted as extraordinary activists rather than as ordinary, fortunate people helping ordinary, unfortunate people. Nancy Skeff, for instance, has been characterized as a benevolent and innocent person seeking to find and magnify the good “locked somewhere inside each of [the inmates], no matter how obscure or how cleverly it is masked.” The media representation of her work suggests that the inmates affected by her encouragement are nonetheless inherently criminal—that there was no injustice in their incarceration, and their doing time is inherently rehabilitative.[10] Even when the actions of arts advocates like Skeff provide successful rehabilitation, the representation of this success continues to exclude inmates from a wider human community. Yet incarcerated people have and always will find a way to make art because it is a fundamental expression of human experience; it is not an action which could only be instigated by an “outsider.”


Rehabilitative power of art

The personal significance of arts programs to emotional reflections and understanding among inmates is demonstrated in prison publications such as Writing on the Walls, Between Fences, and Interpreter. Not only does making art act as catharsis, but the publication of works yields feelings of success. Prison writing programs have received positive feedback from both corrections staff and inmates, who cite benefits such as stress reduction, communication improvement, and increased social and cultural interactions.[11] Testimonies of the programs’ successes are evident in artwork reflecting on past experiences, hope for the future, and understanding of past crimes expressed in visual or written voice. Imagery in visual and written works—nature and flowers, birds, religious scenes, prison environments, freedom, and pain from incarceration—express these notions. Written hopes for release and freedom mirror visual images of free birds and idyllic environments; written reflections about childhood or past mistakes mirror visual images of a change in life; written depictions about the pain and shame of incarceration mirror the desolate and dark visual imagery of prison environments.[12] The anxieties and hopes of inmates are voiced in different forms, and many works demonstrate their understanding of past mistakes and desire to change.

Offenders in Colorado prisons have made art independently as well as in formal program.  In that context, as well, creativity yields profound rehabilitative benefits. Inmates use arts activities as a way to pass the time, to transform the self into a stronger individual, and to mentor other inmates. Franklin Martz, speaking in 1981 at the Colorado Department of Corrections as an inmate on behalf of other inmates, stated that “a painting has the power to take a soul and uplift it.” He had himself utilized painting as an activity to gain a new form of meaning and purpose in prison, and now described the transformation effected by making art.  Rather than gaining prestige from “selling dope,” he now gained prestige with his prison community through painting and teaching other inmates how to paint.[13] In 1986, at the Fremont Correctional Facility, another inmate, Matthew Seaman, used art-making as a way to repay the debt for his crimes. By establishing himself as an artist through selling his works in the outside world, Seaman used every cent of profit from his work, totaling to $40,000, to repay both his victims’ families as well as to repay his other debts. Seaman also created a foundation for victim assistance funded by his profits from selling art. Not only did this activity yield therapeutic benefits, relieving some of Seaman’s guilt and shame by providing him with a higher purpose in life, but it also kept him busy. As one officer stated, “It seems about all he does is sleep and draw. He doesn’t cause any problems. He stays busy.” Seaman was described as “probably one of the safest inmates in the system.” In Seaman’s situation, art yielded both rehabilitation for the individual prisoner as well as order within the prison.[14] No additional security or regulations over prisoner activities was needed; art provided these benefits.

In addition to transforming the lives of the inmate engaged in artistic production, this activity creates and maintains supportive communities both inside and outside prisons. Eddie Loredo, an inmate at Colorado’s Centennial Correctional Facility in 1987 who worked in the commercial arts enterprise of the prison, created a mural depicting the history of Colorado. Due to the massive scale of this project, the entire prison community became involved in its production, and inmates said that they “enjoy it immensely” and are “proud to have something like that there.” Loredo was completely absorbed in his work. He described the mural as opening up another world of which he hopes to take advantage of when released from prison. Before release, he had already found a benefactor to sell his work, and he hoped to begin a career in commercial art.[15] In Loredo’s situation, art not only facilitated personal rehabilitation, internal prison order, and the building of a supportive prison community, but also yielded job opportunities and work skills for return to society, thus guarding against recidivism.

Not only do these individual success stories suggest that prison arts programs work as effective and relatively simple methods for rehabilitation, but data on behavioral and educational success among inmates involved in such rehabilitative activities bolster this argument as well. The Prison Arts Resource Project, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts published an extensive collection of studies on the benefits of such programs across the United States. Forty-eight different programs were evaluated in a 2010 study, revealing significant rehabilitative and financial benefits. In many studies, personal accounts of programs’ benefits include an awareness of increased self-discipline, self-esteem, respect, sense of purpose, reconnection with families and communities, improved time management, motivation, intellectual flexibility, active initiative, and even reduced racial tension in the correctional facility. Personal benefits translate to increased confidence to pursue academic and vocational opportunities. Art then becomes a gateway to other programs for rehabilitation such as education and job training. Inmates involved in arts classes receive fewer disciplinary reports, and relationships within prisons among inmates and staff consequently improve. Rehabilitative benefits yield financial benefits as well. A 1983 study cites $228,522 in measurable social benefits resulting from a $162,790 arts program at the California Department of Corrections. Disciplinary time was reduced by 4,553 hours, resulting in disciplinary savings of $77,406.[16]

In another study, educational achievement is found to correlate negatively with recidivism among those released from prison.[17] Meanwhile, those involved in the arts program Rehabilitation through the Arts complete higher educational degrees while incarcerated. While more inmates earn higher degrees, they also complete them in less time. Such effects most likely occur because participation in Rehabilitation through the Arts translates to self-confidence and skills generating motivation for other avenues of self-development, supplying constructive, low cost activities for the growing prison population.[18] Attention to the success of arts opportunities for Colorado’s and the nation’s inmates then raises the question of why such programs have not been prioritized in attempts to remediate mass incarceration.


[1] Originally researched and drafted by Emma Kerr.

[2] Eve Hodges, “Rehabilitation Aim of New Women’s Prison,” Denver Post, January 14, 1968.

[3] “Women in Prison: The Female Voice: Asserting Their Humanity in a Sterile Environment,” unattributed fragment, Museum of Colorado Prisons.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Mountain States,” Prison Arts Coalition, accessed November 9, 2015,

[6] See Nancy Skeff, “Nancy’s Four Walls: A Collection of Artwork and Words from Prison Inmates,” 1998, Royat Gorge Regional Museum, “Skeff Family” folder.

[7] Prison Creative Arts Project, accessed November 9, 2015,

[8] “Nancy, Her ‘Skool’ Go to the Hearts of Murderers, Rapists,” unattributed fragment, Museum of Colorado Prisons.

[9] “Women in Prison.”

[10] Skeff, esp. 2-6.

[11] John Lemons, “‘Writing on the Walls’ Gives Inmates a Creative Outlet,” Canon City Daily Record, July 18, 1991.

[12] See, for instance, Writing on the Walls, the arts journal of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

[13] Duane Noriyuki, “Art Gives Prestige to Prisoner,” Canon City Daily Record, October 3, 1981.

[14] Claudia Marlino, “Paying Dues: Inmate Uses Talent to Repay Victims of Crime,” Canon City Daily Record, December 24, 1986.

[15] John Lemons, “Inmate Paints History Lesson on Wall of Centennial Facility,” Canon City Daily Record, April 29, 1987.

[16] Amanda Gardner, Lori L. Hager, Grady Hillman, “Prison Arts Resource Project,” May 2014, 13-14,

[17] “Rehabilitation Through the Arts: Impact on Participants’ Engagement in Educational Programs,” Journal of Correctional Education 63 (2012), 6-23.

[18] Ibid.