Narrative Art and Incarcerated Abused Women

Article excerpt

Approximately 2 to 4.4 million women each year are involved in a relationship that includes domestic violence (Plichta, 1996).

Almost half the women in the nation's jails and prisons were physically or sexually abused before their imprisonment (Bureau of Justice Statistics, April 1999). Despite the large numbers of women in jail and prison who have experienced domestic violence, studies of battered women in prison as a distinct and separate population are limited (Richie & Johnsen, 1996). The mental health needs of these women are high, yet few intervention programs have been offered and evaluated for this population.

The arts and narrative intervention program described in this article used visual art, storytelling, music, journaling, and support groups with incarcerated abused women to address the following questions: How can visual art and music empower incarcerated female survivors of domestic violence? Can art, music, sLorytelling, journaling, and support groups with incarcerated women alter their self images?

During an 8-week pilot program at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) the authors, an Assistant Professor of Nursing, and an Assistant Professor of Art Education, gathered qualitative data. The findings were shared with undergraduates and graduates in both the Nursing and Art Education programs. The implications of this research for art education preservice teachers and educators who work in settings outside the public school system can be drawn from the outcomes of this type of intervention. The ideas presented within this article could easily be transferred to any population, especially people in mental health settings, hospitals, shelters, community centers, and support groups. For preservice educators in particular, this research provides a look into the prison system, a place where art education can produce incredible results, but where committed teachers are hard to find. A model for narrative arts-based intervention is also offered. While the focus of this example addresses women, the model can be adapted and used with males as well as females. For example, the intervention topic could be something other than domestic violence, such as substance abuse, self-esteem, divorce, or even issues related to the body.

Participants, Prison Structure, and Group Facilitators

The general population of the ICIW consists of over 600 women who are incarcerated for various crimes and are serving sentences that range from one year to life. The housing and treatment of inmates is structured such that buildings contain units based on special needs and/or programs. Women from the General Population (GP), Therapeutic Community (TC), and After Care Community (ACC) volunteered to participate in this program. The TC unit is for women who have substance abuse problems. The ACC is a complementary program to TC where these women transition back into GP or out of the system. Volunteers for the study reviewed and signed an informed consent document that was approved by the University Institutional Review Board, and we obtained a Certificate of Confidentiality from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The group facilitators-two nurse researchers, a social worker and an art educator-were all associated with the University of Iowa. Because of similar and overlapping interests of the inmates, we decided to engage in an interdisciplinary project with the women at ICIW. The project brought together our knowledge of women in prison with art, music, storytelling, and domestic violence education.

Blending Art, Music, and Empowerment

Our curriculum objectives were based on an empowerment intervention. Empowerment interventions facilitate the restoration of power, control, and dignity by offering knowledge and skills to better direct people's lives and develop healthier self-concepts (Button, 1992; Schechter & Gary, 1988). Interventions for an individual's reactions to major loss and steps toward positive recovery must include opportunities for supportive storytelling, private account making, and social interaction (Harvey, Orbuch & Weber, 1990; Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999; Taylor, 2000). …