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The transformative and therapeutic effects of art can support self-exploration and expression for people involved in the justice system. By providing people with support and artistic tools to develop and process their individual story, one is able to heal and connect with their community as well as their sense of self. The empowering properties of the arts are crucial in healing and rebuilding not only the spirit of those within systematically oppressive correctional facilities but also communities directly impacted by the system at large.

Art education has immense benefits in human development, personal growth and as a form of therapy. Through mediums such as poetry, theatre, and painting, people are able to explore their emotional responses to situations in a safe, empowering and creative space. This is a critical step in the healing process.

In an environment like prison, where people experience dehumanizing conditions and trauma, this need for art education and therapy is heightened. Suppression of voice and emotion becomes a means of survival, but the consequences of this are harmful in the process of growth and reconnecting with one’s self and community. Art works as an alternate language, providing space to explore, cope, and express one’s individuality in a constructive way. Although these programs will not completely transform the structural issues with the justice system, they serve as a much-needed tool in combating its harsh realities. 

Art programs not only support healthy coping mechanisms but they also teach skills to justice-involved individuals that will be beneficial for their reintegration into the community. Taking on the role of Macbeth, writing a poem about the complexities of incarceration, or painting a faint memory from the past all take hard work, dedication and a willingness to learn. These skills are valuable in every aspect of life and help build confidence, creating a sense of self-worth and respect in the individual.

For example, The Beat Within is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing youth who are detained in juvenile hall with access to poetry workshops. These poetry workshops have helped hundreds of youth by providing an outlet to deal with difficult emotions and express their ideas.

When the Atlantic hosted a series of panel discussions during a Race + Justice event in San Francisco, the topic of art arose as well. Actors Dameion Roberts, LeMar Harrison, and the Marin Shakespeare Company managing director Lesley Currier took to the stage to discuss Shakespeare in Prison. According to Currier, through leading theatre workshops inside San Quentin, she has come to realize the immense healing power that theatre can have in the context of oppressive and silencing institutions. 

A lot of sneaky therapy happens through this dramatic work of actually pretending to feel different things,” Currier says. She continues, In an environment where often closing off feelings and not expressing feelings is necessary to protect the safety, when you are invited to pretend to feel awe or curiosity or wonder or gratitude, something opens up inside of you physically and spiritually and change happens.”

During the panel, Roberts discussed his transformative experience with the Shakespeare in Prison program during his sentence at San Quentin State Prison and after he returned home. By playing a variety of different roles in prison, he was able to process and begin to understand his difficult relationship with his family. This newfound passion for theatre has followed him during reentry; he went on to play Othello for The Marin Shakespeare Company and recently won Best Actor in the Bay Area.

These art programs and many others are working to improve the conditions of confinement while also creating a sense of connection between communities and incarcerated individuals. Through the power of art, justice-involved people are allowed the space to develop their voice and take ownership of their stories. These narratives have the power to shed light on the true cost and impact of our system, connecting the general public with the realities of imprisonment. Long-lasting reform can only happen when we listen to those directly impacted by the justice system and give them the platform to share their lived experiences.