“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky
A group of young black men sit and interact before our weekly art therapy group. Some laugh and share stories of their children and loved ones. Others put their heads down and are silent. They discuss and debate song lyrics and current events.
One young man, freshly 18 years of age, bursts into laughter so deep, his eyes begin to tear up. He cannot wipe his eyes though because his wrists are handcuffed together. Those handcuffs are shackled to a small metal desk, which is chained to the floor. His feet are also chained together and shackled to the floor. This is the state of juvenile justice in the United States.
When I first began working in custody as a graduate student of art therapy, I ignorantly thought that juvenile detention centers were different than the adult prisons and jails that I frequented. I was wrong. Juvenile detention centers incarcerate adolescents ages 13-17 and house “adult inmates” until they are 21. Juvenile detention centers are no different than adult prisons in their daily operation, physical structure or philosophy of detention.
From my perspective, a more accurate name for such centers would be “child prisons.” More than 60,000 youths are incarcerated in these prisons on any given day. The majority of these young people are black. This does not include the numbers of children incarcerated at adult prisons. Many children are tried and sentenced as adults. Episode 8 of the new season of NPR’s Serial podcast takes an in-depth look at one such child prison in Cleveland.
To think about therapeutic containment or the creation of a safe holding environment in the context of prison feels paradoxical at best. These young people are not safe in this environment, either physically or psychologically. Histories of trauma, coupled with the toxic stress and bigotry inherent to the prison system, often lead clients to feel utterly psychologically uncontained while completely physically restrained.
This kind of harsh juxtaposition defines the clinical environment I work in. Weekly group art therapy is the only therapeutic support that my clients receive. Art therapy is one of four hours out of the week in which these clients are let out of their cells. Simply being in the presence of a group can be overwhelming to them. To open up too much emotional expression in therapy can be dangerous because these kids are left to cope by themselves.
How then does a clinician establish boundaries and a contained, safe therapeutic environment in a context defined by walls, chains and fences? Walk beside and begin with the art.
Walking beside clients in their therapeutic journey is to embody empathy. It is to see the clients as unique individuals while understanding the cultural and sociopolitical forces (racism, toxic masculinity and other forms of oppression) at work around them. It is to continually investigate my place in that oppression. It is to know and accept that my mere presence and vast privilege as a white, upper-class, free individual may be painful for clients. It is to be open to dialogue about our identities and to hold anger. It is to express my anger at the systems of oppression that shackle young people.
Empathic embodiment is indeed visceral. I strive to walk beside these clients with my heart and, as clinical and liberation psychologist Taiwo Afuape writes, to have my heart broken. I work toward deep therapeutic attunement that allows me to experience the unbearable feelings of clients while remaining grounded. These feelings are simultaneously bearable and unbearable. I stand in the eye of the storm. This position allows me to support clients in the processes of identification, digestion and integration of feelings and experiences.
Art making as resilience
We always begin with art making in sessions. The materials automatically become physical containers for emotions. The concrete nature of the art materials stands in opposition to the rampant, formless boredom of prison. Art therapy interventions have a beginning and an end that is client directed, while time in prison is endless.
Clients often verbalize their creativity and creations as acts of resilience and resistance: “I felt free when making this”; “I forgot I was in prison”; “They can’t take these ideas from me.”
Early on in group therapy, I often implement the “I am” format of sharing about artwork. Clients speak from the perspective of their pieces and work to use literal descriptions of the artwork that begin with “I am”: “I am colorful. I am dark and light. I am chaotic. I am beautiful. I am bound. I am peaceful. I am bright. I am vibrant.”
The continual process of naming and deepening who you are in prison is indeed an act of peaceful resistance. To claim presence is to erode the stereotyped, bigoted treatment by the system.
I know our therapy is progressing when the art making begins to be inspired by the clients’ personal passions. It can take weeks or months of rapport building for clients to share their dreams and goals in therapy. Leading up to these passion projects are long hours of walking with clients through self-doubt, self-hatred, anger, depression, anxiety, fear and shame. Creative writing in the form of poetry, short stories and rap is common during these stages. It is a medium and coping mechanism with which clients are familiar and comfortable.
Passion projects begin to subtlety shift the orientation of time from the present moment to the future, indicating growing resilience and hope. Clients are often more self-directed with these projects. As self-regulation increases, the use of materials generally shifts from two-dimensional to three-dimensional, reflecting a literal inner growth or expansion. Drawings, paintings and writings transform to creations such as folded paper boxes, sculpted figures and dynamic collages. In this place of creativity and visibility, we can approach pain with enhanced flexibility and perspective.
In summary, fostering therapeutic containment in the prison setting is about holding steadfast to attunement and empathy. It requires looking our broken justice system in the eye and allowing our hearts to be broken. Remain grounded in this brokenness and always stay connected to each individual client’s uniqueness, creativity and inner light.
Erika Berger is a recent graduate of Pratt Institute’s master’s degree program in art therapy. For the past two years, she has worked to create and implement clinical art therapy programming in western North Carolina prisons. Prior to becoming an art therapist, she was a bilingual special education teacher in New York City public schools. Contact her at Erika.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related reading, from Counseling Today: “Seeing people, not prisoners”
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