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The Power of Art as Therapy

May 31, 2024
The Power of rt Therapy

“Art is like another language where you can express yourself and a lot of times some offenders find art the best way to do that.”

As a correctional educator at Stony Mountain Institution, Chantille Papko has seen first-hand the therapeutic effect that engaging in artistic activities can have on inmates.

That’s what moved her to suggest it as an ideal addition to Structured Intervention Unit (SIU) programming.

Chantille Papko, Correctional Educator at Stony Mountain Institution

Chantille Papko, Correctional Educator at Stony Mountain Institution.

SIUs, which exist at 15 institutions across the country, are alternative units where CSC works with those who cannot be managed safely in the mainstream population because of risks they pose to their own safety or the risk they pose to others.

In an initiative unique to the SIU at Stony Mountain Institution, Chantille brought in an art therapist with experience in working with those who have experienced trauma to lead art therapy sessions with inmates.

Chantille believes in the power of art as therapy for inmates because of the promise it holds for their rehabilitation needs and goals. As she explains, it provides two benefits in one space and one act.

“We are meeting curricular outcomes, but we are also having the benefit of the mental health component with the therapy side.”

The offenders’ artistic work can count as part of their art credit toward their high school diploma.

While they have explored typical mediums, such as collages and acrylics, they have also branched out to more imaginative forms of artistic expression.

For Chantille, one recent project stands out, a papier mâché face mask.

Through art therapy, a blank mask became a canvas on which inmates explored their identity and their creativity in a tactile and tangible way.

This project gave the participants the chance to reflect and illustrate the contrast between what the world sees, represented on the exterior of a mask, versus what it doesn’t always see, represented on the inside.

Outside of paper mâché face mask

Outside of papier mâché face mask.

Inside of paper mâché face mask

Inside of papier mâché face mask

Chantille got engaged in this activity as well, creating her own and discussing the symbolism behind her choices for the inside and outside of her mask with them.

When reflecting on their masks, she is moved by those that depict a tough exterior, while the inside depicts more of the difficult pasts they carry and difficult places they’ve been.

“What I’ve noticed is that it’s really, really difficult for them to show vulnerability, to see what’s inside,” Chantille said. “But when they do, it’s kind of like wow, that vulnerability is showing and that vulnerability is actually a strength. When that kind of connection transpires, that’s what makes me happy.”

But how do the participants feel about it?

Chantille notes that sometimes the participants are initially hesitant to share their work, but as they get more engaged, she notices their pride in what they have been able to articulate through art.

Chantille will be presenting her art therapy project at a National CSC Education Symposium in September 2024.  To date, 16 offenders have participated during two blocks of sessions that occurred in March 2023 and November and December of 2023.

One offender said he participates because he wants to “learn how to do art.”

Kory Abrams, the Acting Deputy Warden at Stony Mountain, says that the initiative gives offenders the chance to do something that most of them have never experienced.

“The pride they experience in discovering and showing off their artistic talents through this program is immeasurable,” Kory says.

“Art Therapy entails naturally occurring lessons about communication, emotional expression, self-worth, and self-confidence, which are all incredibly important factors toward reintegration, whether that be reintegration into the community or reintegration into the mainstream population.”

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