Escape artists: Prison art, de-stigmatisation and the promise of redemption

Author: Jeremy Ryder

Ryder, Jeremy, 2018 Escape artists: Prison art, de-stigmatisation and the promise of redemption, Flinders University, College of Business, Government and Law

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This thesis is about the production of art in prison, the public exhibition of that art across three annual exhibitions from 2012-2014, and the interactions, reactions and feedback loops between prisoners and members of the public that occurred as a result. This initiative was called Art by Prisoners and it was inspired by and based on an annual exhibition and awards program called Art by Offenders run across the United Kingdom by The Koestler Trust. This thesis is presented in three parts. The first part, On the Walls examines the historical and institutional contexts within which art objects are produced, discussed and exhibited. The production of prison art can be both a risk to the order of the prison and the public image of the departments that manage prison systems. But it can also complement the prison regime by occupying prisoners’ time in ways that develops prisoners technically, creatively and socially. This thesis demonstrates that prisoners produce art as a way of adapting and coping to life within prison. But it also opens up possibilities to push back against one’s master status and the stigma of being a ‘prisoner’ both within the prison institution and beyond it. A key concern for prisoners who participated in the Art by Prisoners initiative was to be visible and participate in the community in ways that challenged their criminal stigma and challenge and change public perceptions of prisoners. A key concern for the Department for Correctional Services was to manage the risk around prisoner involvement in such a high profile public event, and to make sure it sent the ‘right message’. Many prisoners though produce work that explored and expressed the suffering and pain associated with punishment. Thus the exhibitions produced acceptable signs that made the link between crime, punishment, pain, and reform.

Drawing on labelling theory and theories of desistance, this thesis argues that public exhibitions of prison art are ritual events that are managed in ways that allow for prisoners to be active participants in a de-labelling and re-labelled process based on strengths and achievement. Such events allowed the public to unite not for the purpose of retribution, condemnation and expulsion of the offender, but rather the opposite. They allowed for prisoners to come to the community with an offering. The exhibitions were contexts through which the public were willing to accept these offerings while offering encouragement, support and gratitude. At a cultural level, such moments can act as a circuit breaker to the constant angry, fearful and sometimes vengeful public discourse around crime and those who commit it. At an individual level, such moments offer much needed hope as well as important interactions that can facilitate positive identity changes consistent with the concepts of redemption and desistance.

Keywords: prison, art, prison art, stigma, de-stigmatisation, redemption, desistance, labeling, de-labeling, art exhibition

Subject: Criminal Justice thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Business, Government and Law
Supervisor: Mark Halsey