The idea of redemption: Artmaking in prison

Jamie W., Gallows (Below), 2019, acrylic on canvas © the artist

Why do we imprison those who break the law? Is it a form of retribution meted out by the state on behalf of the community? Is it in order to deter others who may consider a life of crime from taking that path and to discourage recidivism? Is it simply a way of removing and containing dangerous individuals in order to maintain the peace and safety of society? Or is it a way to rehabilitate those who have made bad choices, so that they may be re‑integrated into society when their sentence has been served? Across time and diverse forms of society, the checks and balances between these four theories of the purpose of imprisonment have had many different degrees of emphasis and even today there is no firm consensus.

Deterrence, retribution, containment and rehabilitation do not find an easy equilibrium. There is an especial tension between retribution and rehabilitation: the anger of the victim and the indignation of the community versus the desire to help the perpetrator transcend their crime. As a result, while much attention is paid to the processes of guilt or innocence, once decided in a court of law, the convicted individual falls from public view.

The complexity of considering the purpose of imprisonment is left to others and, as the individual is recategorised from citizen to prisoner, they become as if invisible. Artmaking can have a significant contribution to play in both the rehabilitation of the individual and as a means by which to provide the wider community with, in the words of Elizabeth Day, a “window onto the world behind bars”. Day and her colleagues Damian Moss and Philipa Veitch manage Boom Gate Gallery at Long Bay Correctional Complex in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The gallery was established some thirty years ago, at a time when the NSW state government supported art education programs in prisons. In 2016, those programs all but disappeared when the number of qualified educators in prisons was cut from 152 full‑time public teaching positions across all subjects to twenty, with the shortfall to be covered by sixty trainers recruited by tender, none of whom were required to have a degree.[1]

Tom T., Entropy, 2019 acrylic on canvas © the artist

Boom Gate Gallery continues under the direction of the NSW Deputy Commissioner, Luke Grant, who himself has a background in education. In the absence of formal educational programs in art, the gallery facilitates creative production through the supply of materials, and the sale of artwork by prisoners and those who have recently been released. This is about more than production and retail; it is about visibility and the possibility of understanding. “We are a public interface,” Day explains, and through the exhibitions “we try to engage local communities, local councils, local Aboriginal groups, mental health support groups, the Law Society, migrant and refugee support groups, the workers within the Department of Corrections, visitors and families of inmates and any interested members of the public.”

While there are no art training programs at Long Bay, there remains for many prisoners a drive to create. Day suggest that this may itself be a response to a loss of freedom. “In this time of Coronavirus ‘lockdown’, I see how people are finding new ways to create from their homes. Something about the restriction makes people need to be productive in a new way. I think that a similar thing happens a great deal in jails and is the reason much of the work is so compelling and vital. I’ve known prisoners so desperate to make paintings that they rip sheets up or paint on scraps of cardboard, wood, anything they can find. It is interesting to witness that necessity. It lends a particular intensity to their work that one rarely sees in city galleries.”

That intensity can be turned to advantage. Many of those in prison have become disconnected from the community and alienated from a sense of mutuality with the wider society. Artmaking is a process. The self‑reflection and criticality that it demands can change how one sees the world and understands one’s place within it. But art has also become entangled in notions of leisure and luxury, especially when viewed through a neoliberal lens.

As the Anglophone West becomes increasingly atomised, focusing on the self tends to make societies less compassionate towards the situation of others and failures become characterised as personal rather than systemic weaknesses. In many cases, the retributive response to offenders waxes, at the same time the systemic and contextual contributing factors of crime multiply. This is something recognised in countries such as Norway and the Netherlands, where crime is considered a societal rather than just an individual responsibility; where offenders are understood as people who need help. The focus is on restorative processes that encourage the individual to understand the impact of their crime while maintaining and developing family and community connection.

Raymond Young (Gunaikurnai people) with Standing Strong Standing Proud, three ceramic shields representing his grandmother, his father and himself, at the opening of Dhumbadha Munga Talking Knowledge exhibition, presented by The Torch in 2016. Photo: James Henry

While recidivism rates in Australia are as high as sixty per cent—with forty‑eight per cent of convicted offenders in NSW returning to prison less than two years after release—in Norway they are twenty per cent and in the Netherlands only ten per cent.[2] Day points to the Norwegian and Dutch systems, and the value of investing in the rehabilitation of prisoners: “I think to work effectively with people who have done often terrible things you have to be open to the idea of redemption. When people are institutionalised for crime, there is going to be a need to rebuild oneself, and art can contribute to that. We define internal experiences through making art, and through it characterise our intersection with the world. Art is a very generative and animating activity. It enables one to be—and does it in a way that cuts against denials, opening the way to change.

A remedial approach requires a degree of calm in order to reflect and rehabilitate. As Deputy Commissioner Luke Grant acknowledges, “The experience of incarceration can aggravate mental health problems and the artistic process provides a safe and positive way of dealing with problematic feelings and emotions, such as depression and anger.”[3] Consequently, the work of the Boom Gate Gallery team has increasingly focused on the benefits of artmaking in relation to mental health and wellbeing. In 2019, they presented an exhibition of inmate’s work at The Big Anxiety festival, an event which seeks to question and re‑imagine the state of mental health in the 21st century across art and science, and within community experience. Entitled “In Trouble”, the exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue in which inmates wrote about the ways that artmaking had positively influenced their mental health.

There are many reasons why individuals have a desire to make art and, as Day puts it, the role of the Boom Gate team is as “enablers” of that need, in some cases bringing a prisoner “back from the brink of suicide.” Day also notes that, while there may be a desire to make art, creative expression does not always come easy, especially for white inmates who tend to think of artists as “a bit special.” In contrast, she finds that Indigenous artists rarely say, “I’m not creative” and about two thirds of the art sold through the Boom Gate Gallery is Indigenous. There is less inhibition or reticence. It is a cultural perspective in which, as Dr Day puts it, “Art can just be what you do and how you connect with friends and family.” She has found it to be “such a generous attitude, one that is often lacking in the art world, which is highly competitive.”

The dislocation of the individual from their community and the resulting sense of alienation can be a significant determinant of criminality. This is especially true for Indigenous Australians whose connection with community and culture has been fractured by colonial and historical abuse. While the over-representation of Indigenous people in Australian prisons has a number of contributing factors, disconnection from culture and the loss of a positive sense of identity are central.

Kent Morris—a Barkindji artist and CEO of The Torch—emphasises how imprisonment can further weaken important connections with family, culture and identity and perpetuate the exclusion and social disadvantage that can lead to crime. The Torch manages the Statewide Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community program supported under the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement, an agreement which has its roots in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. In the face of high levels of Indigenous recidivism, and recognising the important role of culture and cultural identity in the processes of rehabilitation for Indigenous offenders, The Torch provides art, cultural, and vocational support for Indigenous offenders both inside prison and following release. For Indigenous prisoners in particular, artmaking can help build a positive and socially integrated sense of identity and the program has a particular focus on helping individuals establish networks and build sustainable pathways back into community life following release. It is, to date, the only program of its kind in Australia.

Kim Kennedy (Ngiyampaa people) with the Yarra Tram and Fitzroy Stars football jersey bearing her artwork Four Rivers in 2019. Her tram-wrap design depicts the river systems of Victoria and NSW, calling attention to their importance in supporting healthy aquatic life, community and culture. Photo: James Henry

From the outset in 2011, the program was designed and developed through direct consultation with the people participating in it. Kent Morris recalls meeting with a group of Indigenous men at Loddon Prison only days after he began working at The Torch. Having explained who he was and why he was there, he asked the men what kind of support they would want from the program. At first there was a long silence, and then, “Uncle Ron asked, ‘Can you tell me my totem?’ After that, the responses came thick and fast. ‘What are our creation stories?’ ‘Can you find photos of my grandparents?’ ‘I want to learn the history of my people and learn my language.’ It was clear that cultural learning was the key. Seven years later, a young man who was in that group, and is now back in the community, rang me to ask if I could send him a Barkindji language dictionary so that he could choose a name for his newborn daughter.”

Participants engage in the Torch program as artists rather than offenders. Not just artists, but Indigenous artists. There is an emphasis on cultural learning and the expression of that knowledge through the work they make: on reconnecting with Country and with creation stories, with people, places, and traditions, with the language of markings and designs. As Kent Morris explains, The Torch provides the means for change as participants explore and express their stories and cultural identity through art, build self‑confidence, enhance their emotional wellbeing, and strengthen ties with their language group, all of which assist their integration back into the community upon release. “As Indigenous Australians, our culture, and artistic expression of that culture, are central to who we are. They can promote healing and a pathway back to family and community. That path can be long, but it starts with these artworks.”

Like Boom Gate Gallery, The Torch facilitates through its physical and online galleries the sale and licensing of work by inmates and those recently released. Post‑release participants can also continue to develop their arts‑industry skills by working on the installation and promotion of exhibitions and by undertaking commissions. In 2019, Ngiyampaa woman Kim Kennedy and Mutti Mutti man Jeffrey Jackson, both from The Torch program, were commissioned to create the designs for the exterior of a Melbourne tram. Two years earlier, a work by Kuku Yalanji man Ray Traplin was purchased by Crema Constructions and a seven-metre-high by twenty‑metre wide billboard reproduction installed for a year on the side of a tower block under construction in Melbourne’s city centre.

A seven-metre-high and twenty-metre wide print of Life in the Ocean by The Torch artist Ray Traplin (Kuku Yalanji people) was displayed for a year on a building under construction at 399 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, in 2017. Photo: Darrian Traynor/The Age

The earning capacity of artmaking is important in helping to reduce the recidivism precipitated by precarity and to engender self-worth. But for prisoners to be able to earn from their artmaking necessitated a change in the regulations, a change introduced in 2016 by the Victorian State Government and Corrections Victoria in consultation with The Torch and recommendations from the Victorian Ombudsman. The sale and dissemination of work has helped to enhance community cultural connectedness while accruing savings can help participants re-establish themselves post-release. As Kim Kennedy explained, “I am proud of telling my story. When I got out, I had nothing. That money I made from The Torch selling my paintings helped me set up my house.”[4] In 2019, income for The Torch artists from sales and licensing exceeded $400,000, an amount already equalled in just the first six months of 2020. No commission is taken and one hundred per cent of the income from sales goes to the artist. Each inmate’s earnings are held in a trust account until their release, with interest earned on the capital paid to a victims-of-crime fund.

While cuts in teaching staff in NSW prisons have ended art education in the State’s prisons, the particular context of Indigenous prisoners engaged by The Torch has encouraged the learning and mentoring of art. Meanwhile, in Western Australia, Curtin University has established a successful program of formal tertiary art education in prisons. Justice and Equity Through Art (JETA) was initiated in 1995 by Zoy Crizzle, a lecturer at Curtin who had previously worked as an art tutor in prisons. Through a partnership with the Department of Justice in WA, JETA began offering associate degrees to incarcerated people, later expanding to bachelor and honours degrees in response to demand. By 2018, JETA had gone on to facilitate two masters-by-coursework degrees and enrolled its first masters‑by‑research student.

There are significant challenges to running tertiary education programs in prison, as the coordinator of JETA since 2008, Rebecca Dagnall, explained. Prisoners do not have access to the internet or to an academic library, so the methodologies developed for online learning courses are not appropriate in this case. Instead, the method is, as Rebecca Dagnall put it, closer to “an old‑school correspondence course.” Nonetheless, it is important that students “feel that they belong to and identify with a group of people who are studying” and most are concentrated in facilities where JETA delivers face‑to‑face classes. This is important both in stimulating the learning environment and in the way it develops other, more positive identities for the individuals concerned.

The educational strategy from first to third year evolves becoming more challenging at each stage, while always remaining supportive and emphasising the positive. By second year there is a focus on reflection and conceptual development, encouraging students to push beyond their initial ideas to assay, adapt and refine. In the third year they learn how to respond to and use criticism – to “detach from the artwork as a personal thing,” as Rebecca Dagnall expresses it; to stand back and engage positively with self‑critique. The realisation that one can go beyond one’s perceived limitations builds confidence in the ability to face up to challenge and, indeed, to challenge one’s self.

An openness to criticism and self-reflection is important not simply in artmaking, but in understanding one’s place in the community. Such reflection is also a way to observe the broader systemic structures in which the individual is caught up. Much of the work produced by inmates looks beyond personal experience to raise broader issues around institutionalisation. Each of us exists at the interface of our internal and external experience and, as Dagnall emphasises, the process of artmaking, of creating as thinking and imagination as self‑reflection, can usefully “change people’s ways of being.”

JETA student (work created for Honours degree) The Unmentionables, 2015, laser engraving on anodised aluminium © the artist

An important aspect of the JETA program, enshrined in its name, is equity. It sits within the strategies of rehabilitation and recognises that each individual travels their own path, each from a different starting point. As long as the prison concerned can provide the facilities for learning, the course is open to all those who genuinely wish to participate; there are no prior educational requirements, which means that participants begin with differing levels of basic schooling. The social determinants of chronic intergenerational poverty, abuse and drug use are major obstacles to be overcome in the process of learning, especially when this involves deep reflection, conceptual analysis and an openness to criticism. So, while the program has some particular “success stories”, Rebecca Dagnall emphasises the importance of understanding relative achievement and not simply the obvious high‑fliers.

Students can and do exhibit their work. There is a public gallery in the historic Fremantle prison and students can submit work for exhibition during the quarterly call for proposals. But under Department of Justice rules in WA, artists identified as incarcerated may not be named and no‑one who buys a work from a “prison show” is permitted to know the author. Nonetheless, this does, as in NSW and Victoria, provide a potential source of income to be made available upon release. And, while artists must remain anonymous if identified as currently incarcerated, staff at JETA have seen students and former students entering local art competitions and, in some cases, competitive state and national awards, following their release or without indicating they are in prison.

JETA student (work created for Honours degree) Habitations, 2019, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist

The neoliberal attitude to crime, as to all else, is transactional: consumption–payment, win–lose, crime–punishment. Yet there is little to suggest that harshly treating offenders already alienated from society helps either to rehabilitate them into the community or make us safer, as the high levels of recidivism in Australia attest. In contrast, the systems of criminal justice in Norway and the Netherlands, rather than simply hardening the individual against a society from which they may already feel dislocated, build on the positive in ways that result in much low levels of reoffending.

In Melbourne, the Centre for Restorative Justice at RMIT University is developing ways to help heal the emotional damage resulting from wrongdoing in a way that seeks to balance the needs of the community, victims and offenders. An important aspect of the process involves bringing the offender to face the human cost of their offence; an offence often committed with little thought for its impact on others. Restorative Justice is process that humanises both victim and perpetrator without diminishing the gravity of the crime.

Artmaking can have a similarly humanising effect. As a therapy, it can go some way to relieve the psychological stress of imprisonment that might otherwise simply harden the individual against their community or plunge them into abject despair. As a creative process, artmaking can encourage the individual to reflect imaginatively, to see themselves and their actions from a new perspective. As an expressive act, artmaking can help the individual connect with their community, conveying their ideas and feelings outwards while drawing on the cultural forms of their heritage. And, in some cases, artmaking can generate a small income that, as they transition back into the community upon release, supports the individual by avoiding the poverty trap that first led them into crime.

Artmaking is not a panacea; it relies on context and is most effective when supported by a range of other educational and psychological strategies. But we are not going to reduce recidivism or make our society safer if those supports continue to be withheld. To respond to the suffering caused by crime by inflicting more suffering is not the answer. Rehabilitation requires a degree of compassion for the perpetrator as well as the victim. And for that, as Elizabeth Day suggests, one must believe in the idea of redemption.

JETA student (work created for first year Associate degree) Jubby, 2015 acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist



  1. ^ Melissa Davey, “Prison teachers protest against job cuts and outsourcing to staff without degrees,” The Guardian, 5 September 2016.
  2. ^ Irina Dunn, “Chalk & Cheese: Australian vs. Norwegian Prisons,” Community Justice Coalition 2017.
  3. ^ Long Bay inmates are painting their way to better mental health”, 30 September 2019, NSW Department of Communities and Justice:
  4. ^ Eliza Berlage, “On track through Indigenous Art Program,” NITV News, 12 July 2019:

Alasdair Foster is Professor of Culture in Community Wellbeing in the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Art, RMIT University, Melbourne.