Group Art Therapy with Incarcerated Women

By Erickson, Bonnie J.; Young, Mark E. | Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Group Art Therapy with Incarcerated Women


Erickson, Bonnie J., Young, Mark E., Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling


Art therapy in groups with incarcerated individuals may be effective when participants are defensive and possess limited education. The authors provide procedures, techniques, and case examples from the New Beginnings program for working with women in a detention facility.

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Art therapy is often thought of as an adjunct to counseling; however, because of its unique ability to bypass defenses, in some situations, art therapy may be a treatment of choice to allow clients to discover and express feelings that are often difficult to express verbally (Ferszt, Hayes, DeFedele, & Horn 2004; Gladding, 2005; Malchiodi, 1998, 2003). Using art as therapy does not require that the therapist or the client be an artist because the finished products are not evaluated for their artistic merit. Rather, the focus is on a discussion of the process of creating and on the feelings that arise while working on the exercise. When used in this way, group art therapy is a way of stimulating introspection, building self-esteem and self-awareness, and allowing insights to come to the surface (Gladding, 2005; Malchiodi, 1998). We begin this article with a literature review, discussing potential benefits in stimulating creativity and the use of art therapy groups with incarcerated populations. Next, we discuss the special needs of incarcerated women when using group art treatments. Finally, we describe the New Beginnings program, a residential substance abuse program for incarcerated women that includes group art therapy as a major component. Procedures, techniques, and a case study are provided.

Incarcerated Clients and Creativity

Incarcerated clients are ideal candidates for art therapy interventions because their ability to express emotions is often severely limited by their setting and by their verbal skills (Eisdell, 2005; Ferszt et al., 2004; Young & Bemak, 1996). Even without encouragement, creativity emerges in the form of drawings, tattoos, carvings, and crafts. According to Harrington (1997), art is one of the few legitimate profit-making enterprises in incarcerated settings. Inmates create a variety of items including portraits, crafts, and greeting cards that are traded for commodities and personal items (Harrington, 1997). Creative activities allow inmates to experience autonomy, self-expression, and self-exploration and provide them with opportunities to express emotions in an institutional setting that is rigid and controlling (Ferszt et al., 2004). Verbal expression of some emotions may be viewed by correctional staff and other inmates as a weakness or as a threat, but it is viewed as appropriate when expressed through images (Ferszt et al., 2004).

Besides the therapeutic reasons for including expressive arts treatment, research has demonstrated that creative activities can be beneficial to both the individual and the correctional institution. For example, Gibbons (1997) found that inmates who were able to engage in creative endeavors showed improvement in their mental health, attitudes, and behaviors. Similarly, Gussak (2005) concluded that the use of art therapy with inmates led to a decrease in depressive symptoms and an improvement in mood. Gussak also found that the art therapy participants' attitudes improved, their acceptance of one another and the environment increased, and the interaction between staff and peers was better. There was also evidence of better compliance with directives and an improvement in behavior. Harrington (1997) observed that inmates on death row who engaged in creative projects were better able to cope with the passage of time. For example, Eisdell (2005) referred to an interaction with a death row inmate as a "visual conversation" (p. 8) that began with collaborative drawing, where the inmate and therapist alternated in contributing to the drawings. Through drawing, the inmate began to develop an emotional vocabulary that served as a preparation for later psychotherapeutic verbal interaction. …

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