Florida State University : Research in Review

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Art Behind Bars
Art Behind Bars

It's a rare thing when rehabilitation of prisoners can be called an art form. But a new program launching this fall by Florida's Department of Corrections could be the closest thing to that.

Some Florida prisoners soon will have an opportunity to participate in a joint new program built around the proven therapeutic value of art, said David Gussak, associate professor of art education and clinical coordinator for Florida State's program in art therapy, within the university's Department of Art Education. He said the state program is an outgrowth of a partnership his department has enjoyed with the state prison agency for five years. This partnership has produced the first quantifiable proof that art therapy in prisons really works, Gussak said.

Gussak has devoted most of his career in art therapy to helping prisoners deal with the self-destructive behaviors that have condemned them to a life behind bars. Using art classes as therapeutic aids in prisons is hardly a new idea, but the effectiveness of such programs has traditionally been questioned because of a lack of statistical proof. In 2002, Gussak began the first quantitative study ever done in prisons.

Working in collaboration with the Florida Department of Corrections, Gussak and his team of graduate interns led several studies in a variety of Florida's correctional facilities. He and a staff of therapists worked with inmates using art therapy techniques. Testing determined the level of mental functioning before and again after art therapy intervention. Gussak's team found a quantifiable improvement in a number of behaviors. Depression decreased, and behavior, attitude, and socialization skills improved.

Encouraged by Gussak's research, the Florida Department of Corrections has thus begun the first steps to a major expansion of its art programs in prisons statewide. The initiative has support from the highest levels of the department.

Laura Bedard, Department of Corrections deputy secretary who has taught criminology at FSU, has long promoted art in Florida prisons. “This is a segment of the population that historically has failed in school. They haven't been exposed to some of the cultural issues that art can expose them to—and art can be used as a venue to teach all kind of things—communication skills, team building, decision making skills…things that inmates might not normally get.”

Last spring, Bedard's department asked Gussak to be the guiding light for its new art program that will include writing and dance, as well as the visual arts. Gussak has been charged with developing a detailed proposal that will describe an art program for correctional facilities throughout Florida. He's put together an interim committee that will assess needs and resources and formulate a direction. If all goes well, a permanent committee will be formed to oversee and facilitate the program. —J.H.