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The importance of art and music behind bars

Re-entry and rehabilitation must be the focus of an inmate’s incarceration experience or we are doomed to fail

By Laura Bedard, Ph.D.

I get it. Prison shouldn’t be fun. I get it — victims don’t want to see inmates playing in a band or making art. I get it. The purpose of prison is retribution. Free world people want inmates locked away. They don’t want to know what they’re doing and they don’t care how they came to be criminals.

But facts are facts. Most inmates will get out. They will re-enter society and live next-door. They will work at places our families frequent, attend our churches and have contact with the community.

Re-entry and rehabilitation must be the focus of an inmate’s incarceration experience or we are doomed to fail. This article will discuss how visual arts and music play an important role in an inmate’s rehabilitation.

We’ve all seen the talent of inmate art. Home made greeting cards, paper picture frames, soap sculptures, tattooing; graffiti art – artistic talent, albeit not used properly, is everywhere in prison. And musically, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a more talented group of musicians than behind bars. They write music, script lyrics, and express themselves through all genres of music.

Art and music allows inmates an opportunity to express feelings. I know it sounds corny, especially coming from a warden but I truly believe it. Most inmates live in a shell. Many were brought up in totally dysfunctional homes, abused, used and neglected.

If you don’t know how to love or empathize, how can you? Dr. Phil always says, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” I tell you this not to excuse behavior. Many people live terrible lives and don’t become criminals. One inmate said, “Being in prison has led me to lose sight of myself. I had built a wall around myself. Being in music has given me an outlet to express myself and hope for who I can be when released,” said AK, serving 8 years.

Art provides a tool for inmates to talk to staff about something other than their prison life. Our facility has hall murals that inmates painted. Some staff hated the fact that we permitted inmates to paint on the walls. I explained to them that not only did it provide an outlet for expression, but inmates now have ownership in the building.

The inmates will proudly show off which section they painted. The mural projects also promote teamwork, a concept foreign to many criminals. Planning the design, deciding who would work on each section all involve team work and compromise. Planning a big musical event on the recreation yard requires planning and discussion, or teamwork.

I have seen inmate lives transformed through art and music. Recently in the hall I was talking to an inmate who suffers from an Anxiety Disorder. He told me the only way he was coping with his prison experience was the couple hours a week he gets to go to the music and play guitar.

He is off medication and functioning, utilizing music as his outlet. I went down to watch him after our discussion and the transformation was apparent. In the hall, the physical signs of anxiety were there: the inmate was wringing his hands, not making constant eye contact and sweating. While he was playing guitar there were no signs of anxiety – he was stress free.

Art and music, if done properly, can change the entire tone of an institution. Inmates look forward to putting on shows or donating their art work to benefit charities. It provides them with an opportunity to give back. We all know criminals are selfish by nature. I have found art and music provides them an opportunity to focus on others; to learn selflessness.

Do you agree or disagree? Tell us in the comments below.

Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. During her tenure as administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University, she ran a study-abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy. In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country. Dr. Bedard has published and lectured on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Chief of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida.

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