Art Therapy and Incarceration


It can be challenging to administer art therapy in a group setting.

Patients need to trust each other, or they will not share anything that could make them feel vulnerable. This scenario is typical for incarcerated patients. It is too risky for them to share how they are feeling, which would make them a target for other patients’ attacks, so therapy can often stall early on. Inmates who are illiterate or find it difficult to communicate verbally can also find it difficult to articulate the problems they experience. Making art can serve as a benefit to incarcerated populations, sometimes without them even realizing what is happening.

Difficulties of Therapy with Inmates

Prisons are not often the easiest settings to administer therapy. Prison culture encourages inmates to have rigid defense mechanisms that can be difficult to overcome. The strict quality of prisoner hierarchy leaves little room for flexibility. Surviving in prison can make inmates take on qualities they would not have in the outside world. The prison environment can encourage sociopathic tendencies, including a rampant lack of trust. This creates the challenging situation of effectively administering therapy to many prisoners who desperately need therapy There are a number of reasons that inmates who suffer from mental illness and should be getting treatment don’t.

These reasons include:

  • Budgetary constraints
  • Limited number of counselors or therapists
  • Frequent movement of inmates
  • Lack of space


Art therapy has shown to be effective in treating patients who have experienced trauma. Though all inmates have a unique background and path, they all share the experience of being incarcerated. Prison is a harsh environment that can be psychologically damaging to inmates, making them feel hopeless or powerless. The trauma of incarceration can worsen Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or create PTSD-like symptoms.

These symptoms include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Feeling detached
  • Flashbacks and/or nightmares

How Art Therapy Helps

Art is something that has been done in prison for many years. Having artistic talent, whether decorating envelopes, giving tattoos, or making murals, can increase the level of respect an inmate gets. Studies published in the American Journal of Art Therapy have shown that participation in arts programs decreases the number of disciplinary reports on inmates. It is shown to work despite illiteracy and other obstacles that inmates deal with. A study published in The Arts and Psychotherapy showed that art therapy is effective in increasing mood, improving socialization, enhancing problem-solving skills, and locus of control. The art-making process was seen as more beneficial than the end result.

The process of making art helps:

  • Reduce aggression
  • Enhance non-verbal communication
  • Provide a diversion and emotional escape
  • Self-expression acceptable to prison culture
  • Reestablish identity

When inmates complete an art project, it gives them a sense of accomplishment. The content of the art, or skill level of the artist, is less important than the process itself, which is what is therapeutic. If inmates can learn to trust their art therapist and commit to attending sessions, it is beneficial for them, as well as the entire prison community. Mental health populations in prisons are often neglected for many reasons, but art therapy has shown to be an efficient and effective way of managing issues, which should be used.