Peter Sinapius

Art Therapy in Prisons

Vortrag auf der International Conference “Mental Health and Addictions in Prisons” am 27. Februar 2013 in Bucharest.

The jail is looking at me like from a mirror; my mouth is closed like the door that keeps me from hate in the morning, from my own and from the hate of those, who have imprisoned me. I wish I could lose my mind so as not to understand the senselessness of my punishment.

These are the words of an inmate from a prison in Germany. They were recently published in a book of stories and poems by prisoners [1].

In prison there is no freedom. The inmates are controlled by clear rules. Contact with friends and relatives is interrupted and the space for privacy and retreat is reduced to a minimum. Independence is lost and prisoners have no autonomy. They are excluded from the social community.

As a result fundamental conditions of life are affected. The withdrawal of liberty is an existential incident. This pressure leads to a high suicide rate, especially in the first weeks of imprisonment. In the years from 2000 to 2004 442 prisoners in Germany committed suicide, 279 of them did so within the first 6 months of imprisonment and 7 within 24 hours of arrest.

German penal law states:

  • Life in prison should be as similar to the general conditions of life as possible.
  • Harmful effects of imprisonment should be prevented.
  • Imprisonment should be executed in a way that helps to reintegrate the prisoners into life outside prison.

The reality is far removed from these principles. Imprisonment is neither similar to the living conditions outside the prisons nor does it teach the prisoners to lead a life of independence. Life inside and outside prison is clearly distinguished. Prison is a foreign place for those who are outside.

„Prisons are always the others,” was the title of an art exhibition that took place in Berlin four years ago. One part of the exhibition consisted of collaborations between artists and prisoners. One work showed a video documentation of a project in the USA entitled: Question Marks from the year 1996.

“Question Marks” was developed as an exchange project between two groups of prisoners who had never met before: ten long-term inmates from the U.S. Federal Penitentiary, one of the largest high-security prisons in the United States and thirty young people from the Juvenile Court / Fulton County Child Treatment Center in Atlanta. Over three months a video exchange between these two groups was organized. The background to the videos was a series of art-workshops that dealt with questions of perception, space and relationships. The inmates created their images in visual art and performances, which became a starting point for discussions about themes of intimacy, family, crime and punishment. Each group documented its own work process, which it then made available to the other as material for the exchange between the long-term inmates and the group of young inmates.

In a further development, questions were formulated that addressed society as a whole; these were printed on car number plates, which were then driven in public. On the plates people could read: Are you scared of the lifestyle that you must now live as a young man? Who should I fear? Are you who you say you are? What do you want to know about me? Can you get away?

The project shows possible effects of art in prison. It opened boundaries to facilitate development and to stimulate communication. This seems paradoxical, because the purpose of prison is the opposite: it is isolation, restriction of personal scope, exclusion from the community, limitation of freedom and communication. The reason that art makes something possible that is not part of real life in prison, is that it opens imaginary spaces and follows its own rules. In these spaces of freedom the possibilities become almost limitless. Dramas can take place about murder and killing without any blood actually flowing. The prisoners can travel to foreign countries, without the prison walls being torn down. They can create visions and hopes for the future.

The desire to open up boundaries beyond the everyday life in prison leads to an above-average drug use inside. The use of drugs is an attempt to escape reality. A way of seeking a world without borders and boundaries.

Through the influence of drugs as well that of art, inmates have access to an alternative world experience, a reality the prison system does not have access to. But there is a crucial difference between these two options of going into an alternative world. Unlike artistic imagination, the use of drugs reduces a person’s autonomy or even destroys it. It is replaced by addiction and disease. Artistic work however opens spaces of freedom that allow individual development and change processes even within the context of imprisonment.

I’ll show you some examples of artistic work in prison that I supervised:

Three students worked in a women´s prison for 8 weeks with 6 inmates. The penitentiary had 22 imprisonment places. 90% of women who are imprisoned, have committed crimes related to drug abuse and drug trafficking. In the beginning they were very shy and unsure, lacking confidence. That changed significantly during the work. The group worked with various artistic media: masks were built, pictures were painted, theater was played, the participants danced and made music. The women themselves were amazed at their own capacity. One woman said, while cutting eyeholes into her mask: “Up to now I am familiar with stabbing someone violently with a knife, but to handle a knife in such a fine and sensitive way is new for me”.

The women increasingly developed confidence and discovered the art work as a way to communicate and to act responsibly beyond hierarchy and subordination. The space in which the art work took place was clearly distinct from the context of the prisons everyday life. It was not about adaptation and subordination. The inmates and the students related to and cooperated with each other.

The dancing showed, what effect art can have in prison. It opens up possibilities, which are usually denied: free movement. Dance influences the perception of space, time, one’s body, of others and of relationships that become visible through the movement. While moving you are moved. In this way art creates space for processes of change.

Another art project in the penitentiary in Bremen is a workshop called “open walls”, in which the prisoners produce sculptures. The sculpture studio was founded in 1978 on the occasion of a competition. At that time there were many changes in a variety of social fields, including prisons. This brought art rehabilitation projects into institutions. The purpose was to address the core of the human being and to give space for individual expression.

The prisoners work in the art studio as part of their obligation to work and are paid for it. The sculptures, which emerge under the hands of the inmates, are placed in public spaces such as squares, schools or playgrounds.

One prisoner, who has been in jail since 2010 said, “I took drugs; I am here because of drug-related crime. I had nothing to do with art before, but in the sculpture workshop of the prison, I realized how much fun it is. Here I am finally doing something useful.”

The way to relate to any artistic material is a kind of creative dialogue, which differs considerably from the interactions that are determined by the rules of the prison. When you work on a thick piece of wood to make a sculpture you go into a dialogue with the material. While you impress the material, the material will make an impression on you: It is hard or soft, its fibers stand up against the blows or receive and absorb them, its internal structure and texture challenges you to work in a certain direction. You cannot do whatever you want, you are forced to respond to the piece. If a prisoner works in this way, he has new experiences: his actions are not determined by extrinsic rules, they result from an active dialogue and the intrinsic properties of the material.

Another prisoner, who has been involved in the sculpture workshop, reports about his experiences:

“While working on my sculptures I can solve problems and reduce complexes, which even by psychiatrists and psychologists are deemed unsolvable. My confidence has increased by working in the group and I don’t want to miss this atmosphere. In a sense you can say this is like therapy…it’s the best thing I’ve seen in 16 years of being in prison…

The production of sculptures is like childbirth, the sculpture is born, sometimes it’s even painful … To carve a stone is like merging with the material that is carved, you develop a sense of the stone from which the sculpture is created , you get to know the mass of a stone to its very inner core …

It is very important that everybody can express himself, so that we can present our true thoughts to the outside world, and not what the society says about us…” [2]


[1] William V.: Ich suche meine Augen. In: In jeder Nacht lacht der Teufel leise – Literatur aus dem Strafvollzug 2011. assoverlag

[2] Bichler, Paul (2011) in: In jeder Nacht lacht der Teufel leise – Literatur aus dem Strafvollzug 2011. assoverlag

Dieser Service wird von einem externen Anbieter bereitgestellt. Wenn Sie diesen Dienst nutzen möchten, erklären Sie sich mit der Datenverarbeitung durch den Anbieter einverstanden.
Zur Datenschutzerklärung