Our mission is to provide as many opportunities as possible for residents of the Idaho prison and re-entry communities to have transformative arts experiences. Using the arts, we will publicly advocate for the humanity of those in and affected by the carceral system.
What do we mean by “transformative arts experiences”? The arts — writing, dance, music, and such — holds a special place in society for healing individuals and for building community. The arts have been marginalized and trivialized, but they hold a unique (and as of yet untapped) role in the creation of peace and prosperity. Transformative arts — practiced increasingly around the country in carceral situations — offer an implicitly therapeutic approach that helps individuals find their center, so they can live with more self-confidence and self-control.
Among other things, transformative arts experiences:
- help people tell their stories, and thus process their past and current situations
- provide basic enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake
- give people the occasion to experience complex, collaborative relationships
- release the self from vicious cycles of self-harm, and create virtuous cycles of self-care
- train the body to experience calm focus, strength, and flexibility
Idaho has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country (and the U.S. is the most incarcerating country in the world). There are about 8,500 residents “inside,” and an additional 17,000 on probation or parole “outside” who are ostensibly in IDOC custody.
Most people in Idaho prisons will be released back into society, and many of them have children and other family members, such that their well-being (or lack of well-being) will have an impact on many people around them — especially their children. At the same time, Idaho is lacking in drug rehab services, has a shortage of low-income housing, and getting a job after being incarcerated is difficult. If we can improve the rehabilitative experience in Idaho prisons, and help people cope with the difficult conditions after release, we can have a serious —and multiplying — impact on society.
- What are the potential benefits of arts experiences and relationships to help individuals cope with being inside and adapt to being outside?
- There’s a lot of evidence that arts experiences can be transformative and play a major role in growth and healing, but what are the best ways to bring arts into carceral (prison and re-entry) settings to optimize those transformative effects?
- How do practices of mindfulness and movement-arts like yoga fit into these solutions?
- How can we involve IDOC staff and Idaho law enforcement professionals in transformative arts experiences, too?
- How can programs be scaled in a large state that has many prison facilities?
- How do we craft an evidence-based philosophy that can serve as a navigation instrument?
a quote from psychologist Daniel Siegel:
“No matter what you may have been through, no matter how hard it was, no matter how terrifying it was, no matter what was done to you, or what you did, the research is very clear: If you take the time, and really take strength and courage, to reflect on what happened, by making sense — not just intellectually analyzing what happened, but feeling and sensing those things from memory — then you can actually liberate yourself from the prison of the past.”
There is the potential for rehabilitation and healing in every person. This is a common religious tenet, especially in Christianity, but it’s becoming clear that the potential to heal exists in everyone. But missing from most prison arts programs is explicit information about psychology and mindfulness. Recent breakthroughs in mindfulness and behavioral science make it possible to offer knowledge of how the brain works along with therapeutically-oriented artistic activities. Such methods offer “soft” methods to address tricky personal histories involving trauma (compared to the “hard” methods of one-on-one clinical therapy) which are often at the heart of violent and criminal behavior. Breaking that earlier quote down:
- taking time
- taking strength and courage
- feeling and sensing things from memory
This framing of therapy is remarkably similar to the basis of artistic creation. Among the many overlaps between the arts and healing processes is storytelling. The liberation is psychological and spiritual. An artist uses the body in special ways to claims self-control, and therefore freedom from the control of traumatic circumstance or institutions. Those who do not feel psychologically liberated will always struggle to integrate into society and, especially lacking financial independence, will gravitate back toward incarceration. But also, those who are incarcerated for life can experience liberation, too: peace of mind, self-forgiveness, self-control, creativity, and the assertion of dignity.
the arts are about relationship and community
For a moment, forget about the material, aesthetic, and technical aspects of the arts, and consider the community and relational aspects. What is any art, as a way to form relationships and build community? I ask this, in part, because phrases like “creative writing” are mind-numbing. Over the last 500 years, the arts have evolved into highly materialistic system, embodied most obviously in art auctions where paintings go for hundreds of millions of dollars. “Fine” art, as with classical music and ballet, is associated with wealth and privilege. Poetry is seen as academic. We are in a sad time in which the phrase “the arts” is greatly misunderstood, and relegated to a kind of “trivial pursuit”. In many arts communities, there is often an atmosphere of ego and competition, too. Yet every art offers perennial and intangible properties that make its finest works especially valuable — apart form the material itself, and apart from status or “success”. Among these are meaning, beauty, grace, and the conferring of dignity.
Writing is ultimately about relationship. By writing, you’re placing yourself in empathetic relation to an audience, starting with the self, revealing the vulnerability of an inner life. Empathy is thus a significant part of any writing experience. When you read a poem out loud to a group of people, in many ways that poem is less important than the act of speaking and the experience of being heard. When you paint a picture, it’s for yourself initially, but as others interact with it, you reveal new layers of your own humanity. The act of sharing art or performance, of opening the inner world to the outer — is where art has its culminating value.
the arts as universally applicable life-skills and healing structures
If you look closely, and try to free yourself of the prejudice we have toward “the arts,” it’s clear that the value of “the arts” starts with how speech, movement, and interaction form the basis of human intelligence, relationships, emotional wellbeing, and physical skill. What would we do, as children, if we could not communicate our needs? According to many cognitive scientists, movement is the basis of our ability to think and use language. What we literally grasp as infants — using the hand, sensing, feeling ourselves in space — becomes the internal basis of “grasping” or comprehending things, even “holding” things in memory. The “spaces” we carve out in the mind are formed by the way we have explored the world with the body. Play expert Stuart Brown, MD, writes that “The central aspects of human nature require movement to be fully realized.” Practices of dance and yoga, by connecting conscious intention and mindfulness with movement, give a person incredible power to claim the cognitive power of the body for themselves, so as to embark on an autonomous journey of growth and healing.
With this in mind, we can transition from simply giving people in “techniques” to teaching the reasoning and science behind creativity as it relates to healing and self-transformation. If we can share the basis of how creativity and mindfulness benefits us, these processes will tend to stick with a glue of reason. Teaching “the arts” combined with science empowers people to continue the journey of discovering their calm, observant, inner being — according to their own terms. Once a person gets it — that creativity engenders agency and power — it takes like a plant. But importantly, the arts engage people in ways that are subjectively wide-open, and therefore free of agendas that might come with “therapy” approaches that may or may not be relevant to them; after all, some people in prison are actually okay — except that they’re in prison.
ministering the arts beyond prisons and individuals
Community art-forms like music, theater, and dance present opportunities to connect people in disparate, possibly antagonistic communities. How might music address the deficit of empathy between communities of color and police? How might writing safely connect those who have committed sex crimes and victims of similar crimes? There are many individuals who are victims of crime who feel that the justice system leaves them behind. How can the arts serve as means by which to engage in restorative justice?
establishing the DNA of an organization with a philosophy of society, arts, and healing
Idaho is late to the game of a major prison arts organization, and highly in need of one, but this means we have the chance to grow an organization from the ground up whose DNA includes new considerations. Most importantly, we can fold certain elements of “meta-education” related to mindfulness and mental health into transformative and community-oriented arts experiences. The “parts” of a solution begin at the level of personal well-being for incarcerated people, but we also need to consider the wellbeing those who run the system. On a broader level, the solution includes educating the public about the current state of the prison system, about the humanity of those inside it, and about the potential that all humans have to heal and forgive.