Incarcerated Artists Enhance Self-Worth

. December 3, 2013.
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Pamela Braddy, an Ohio State grad with a degree in art education, didn’t expect to spend her working life in jail. Answering an intriguing ad offering a nontraditional teaching job lead to her career.  Twenty-six years later, she continues to teach in prison classrooms with continuing enthusiasm. “There is so much wasted talent and hidden ability behind bars” Braddy says, explaining her motivation. She wants her prisoner-students to “discover they have talents, which can lead to an understanding they are more than just what they’ve done.”

If recidivism is partially a problem of identity, then art becomes a powerful tool for inmates to reshape how their family and community see them and how they see themselves fitting back into that community.  Through collaborative projects, students learn how “to take ownership of their commitments to plan projects and complete them,” helping to develop skills of “compromise and appropriate expression of frustration”—critical tools for individuals reentering society.

Positive reinforcement

Inmates  positively impacting their community can be seen in a Braddy-assisted St. Mary’s Correctional Institute group  planning, designing and painting murals  creating friendlier visiting areas,  changing a room of stark barriers and cold metal into a warm spot for children to meet with an incarcerated parent.

For the past five years, Braddy has worked in the Ohio’s Pickaway Correctional Institution, creating successful arts programs, despite the unique challenges of the work environment. Braddy maintains respectful relationships with her students, keeping constantly vigilant during class time.

Inmates who enroll in Braddy’s visual arts program receive eight weeks of instruction in basic creative elements including drawing, color theory, art history, and philosophy of art. Advanced students are invited to attend open art workshops, where they are encouraged to pursue individual or group projects.

An emotional outlet

Braddy is often amazed by her students’ creativity with limited resources. One student used packages of Kool-Aid to dye fabric while another made a small boat of tightly folded sheets of paper. These classes provide “opportunity to mentally escape prison,” Braddy explains. “For two hours, they simply go away, to place their feelings of frustration, longing, and anger into their art.”

Learning to express negative emotions through art provides a safety valve in the prison,where violence can simmer. As well, there is evidence that the effects of art can be life transforming. “Feelings of self-worth are enhanced when individuals see the  results in their work. They describe themselves to their families in new ways. And they might realize, ‘if I can accomplish this, what other great things can I do when I’m out of here?’”

Original art from Ohio prison programs can be viewed locally at 615 Adams Street, the Federal Defender’s offices for the Northern District of Ohio. The office , which provides representation for criminal defendants in Federal District Court, is  a strong advocate for prison arts programming. The Canton-based nonprofit Reentry Bridge Network has collected more than 200 art pieces which are  presented in the Defender’s offices  in Cleveland, Akron, and Toledo.