A substantial body of research shows that arts education in prison has a dramatic positive impact on participants’ quality of life. With remarkable consistency, the dozens of academic studies completed on this subject show that arts-in-corrections programs have significant rehabilitative benefits, as well. These impacts have also been shown to follow participants after they are released: many peer-reviewed studies have found significant, long-lasting decreases in recidivism among participants of arts education programming in prisons.
As the authors of a 2021 study conclude, “prison arts programming may transcend skills-based and social emotional outcomes to invoke liberatory experiences for participants.”
In fact, researchers have shown that the arts are a vital component of prison education alongside other educational programs, such as college programs or vocational education.
The sociologist Lee Michael Johnson writes that “prison adult-education programs that focus narrowly on sets of basic, key, and cognitive skills are much less rehabilitative (associated with low amounts of reduced recidivism) than those that also focus on arts and humanities… The arts, therefore, are more than supplementary to prison education—they are integral to achieving its primary goals.”
Multiple studies have linked participation in prison-based arts programming to significant decreases in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, and dramatic increases in self-respect, self-esteem, and sense of purpose.
- The results of studies conducted by David Gussak in 2007 and 2009 measuring the effectiveness of arts education in Florida state prisons “reflected a significant decrease in depressive symptoms in those inmates who participated in the program” (Gussak, 2007, 2009).
- A 2009 study of arts education among juveniles by Rapp-Paglicci et. al. found a “significant decrease in symptoms of mental health disorders, notably anger/irritability and anxiety/depression.”
- A 2014 study of California’s arts-in-corrections program found that participants reported increased self-discipline, self-esteem, self-respect, sense of purpose, and reconnection with family as a result of the program (Brewster, 2014).
- A 2021 study evaluating the effects of the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative found that participants reported “social emotional outcomes such as community connection, skill attainment, and self-efficacy,” as well as “learning, growth, and discovery; opening up; authentic self-expression; empathy and perspective taking; belonging and connection; creative collaboration; joy and freedom.” The authors conclude that “prison arts programming may transcend skills-based and social emotional outcomes to invoke liberatory experiences for participants” (Littman and Sliva, 2021).
In addition to these therapeutic benefits, researchers have found strong rehabilitative benefits to arts education, as well.
- A 1999 study on an arts education program for women in Washington state prisons found improved skills in conflict resolution, bonding, trust, and intimacy (Dunphy, 1999).
- A study of participants in a creative writing program in Northeastern Correctional Center in Massachusetts found dramatic increases in “prosocial” behaviors and community formation (Blinn, 1995).
- A 1992 study of writing and drama workshops in an Iowa prison found that 70% of men who participated showed “significant positive change in their relationship with peers and authority figures” (Cleveland, 1992).
The rehabilitative benefits of arts education in prisons has been shown to have real impacts not only on incarcerated people’s quality of life, but also on behavior, motivating individuals to participate in other kinds of programming (such as higher education) and reducing disciplinary infractions.
- Halperin, Kessler, and Braunschweiger found that participants in a New York arts program, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, were motivated to pursue educational degrees. 57.6% of RTA participants earned degrees beyond the GED while incarcerated, compared with 28.6% and 39.6% in control groups (2012)
- Moller found that participation in arts education at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York was associated with a “significant decrease in frequency and severity of infractions, as reflected in institutional records” (2011).
- Brewster found that 61% of participants in California’s Arts-in-Corrections program reported improved behavior (2014).
- Okelola and Irvine found that disciplinary incidents decreased by 89% after incarcerated people began participating in arts programming in California (2015).
The changes that arts education programs can have on incarcerated participants appear to be long-lasting. The majority of research on the effectiveness of arts education programs is focused on recidivism, which has been shown to decline dramatically among participants of arts education programming in prisons.
- An internal study by the California Department of Corrections found that, one year after being released, 74.2% of participants in the Arts-in-Corrections had "favorable outcomes" (no parole difficulties, no reconvictions), while the rate for all parolees was 42% (California Department of Corrections, 1987).
- Jarjoura and Krumholz found that participants in the Changing Lives Through Literature Program, a creative writing program in Massachusetts State prisons, had a reconviction rate of 18.75%, versus a 45% rate in a control group (1988). A more recent study of the Changing Lives Through Literature Program corroborated the reduction in recidivism associated with the program (Schutt et. al., 2013).
- Blinn, C. (1995) Teaching Cognitive Skills to Effect Behavioral Change Through a Writing Program. Journal of Correctional Education, 46(4), 146-154.
- Brewster, L. (2014). The Impact of Prison Arts Programs on Inmate Attitudes and Behavior: A Quantitative Evaluation. Justice Policy Journal, 11(2), 1-28.
- California Department of Corrections. (n.d.). Arts-in-Corrections Research Synopsis on Parole Outcomes for Participants Paroled December 1980-February 1987. Santa Cruz, CA: William James Association Prison Arts Program.
- Cleveland, W. (1992). Geese Theater: America’s National Prison Theater Company. in Cleveland, W. Art in Other Places: Artists at Work in America’s Community and Social Institutions. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. p. 51-73.
- Dunphy, K. (1999). A creative arts performance program for incarcerated women: The arts of transforming shame. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 26(1), 35-43.
- Gardner, A, Hager, L., and Hillman, G. (2014). Prison Arts Resource Project: An Annotated Bibliography. National Endowment for the Arts. Available here: https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Research-Art-Works-Oregon-rev.pdf
- Gussak, D. (2007). The Effectiveness of Art Therapy in Reducing Depression in Prison Populations. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 51(4), 444-60.
- Gussak, D. (2009). The effects of art therapy on male, female inmates: advancing the research base. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 36(1), p. 5-12.
- Jarjoura, R. G., & Krumholz, S. T. (1998). Combining Bibliotherapy and Positive Role Modeling as an Alternative to 27 Incarceration. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 28 (1/2), 127-139.
- Johnson, L.M. (2008). A Place for Art in Prison: Art as A Tool for Rehabilitation and Management. The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, 5(2), 100-120.
- Littman, Danielle Maude and Sliva, Shannon. (2021). “The walls came down:” A Mixed-Methods Multi-Site Prison Arts Program Evaluation. Justice Evaluation Journal, 1-23.
- Moller, L. (2011). Project Slam: Rehabilitation through Theater at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. The International Journal of the Arts in Society, 5(5), 9-30.Okelola, Valerie and Irvine, Angela. (2015). Impact Justice: Evaluating the Actor’s [sic] Gang.
- Rapp-Paglicci, L., Stewart, C., and Rowe, W. S. (Winter 2009). Evaluating the Effects of the Prodigy Cultural Arts Program on Symptoms of Mental Health Disorders in At-Risk and Adjudicated Youths. Best Practices in Mental Health: An International Journal, 5(1), 65-73.
- Schutt, R., K., Deng, X. and Stoehr, T. (2013) Using Bibliotherapy to Enhance Probation and Reduce Recidivism. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 52, 181-197.