Draconian ban on prisoner art marks a return to the penal dark ages
WE would condemn any society that refuses prisoners the right to rehabilitate themselves.
Yet this is exactly what the Queensland government is doing by stifling the artistic aspirations of those behind bars.
In September 2009 the Queensland Parliament passed legislation (Section 28 of the Corrective Services Act 2006) that prevents the artworks of prisoners in the state being sold or exhibited.
They can be gifted, but only with permission from the Queensland Department of Corrective Services.
In fact this overly punitive and ill-conceived legislation introduced by the Bligh Labor government runs contrary to international trends encouraging prisoner art as a meaningful form of rehabilitation and one that, in many ways, ultimately benefits society at large.
The legislation is positively Edwardian and simply serves to control and demoralise the artistic and cultural activities of indigenous and non-indigenous prisoners.
While some dinosaurs in politics and the media may think prisoners have no rights and deserve no fulfilment behind bars, most people realise that empowering prisoners may help them reform, be a benefit to society and, in the end, save us all a lot of money.
With the draconian Queensland legislation in place, the genre of prison art in the state’s prisons is being constrained as a strategy for equipping prisoners with the artistic and psychosocial skills with which to rehabilitate their lives and establish themselves as self-sufficient workers on return to the wider community.
These mostly self-taught artists have, under difficult circumstances, developed a complex visual language that draws on cultural influences from outside and from within the prison system to form a unique self-expression of their conditions.
It is often the first time inmates have come into contact with the arts and for many it represents a significant moment leading to reflection, redemption and the creation of an artistic identity.
Indeed, engagement with the arts can become the cornerstone of rehabilitation for many prisoners, especially those from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.
Brisbane arts worker Neal Price, curator of the Prisoners Legal Service’s art auction, dubbed Last Works, on December 17 last year, explains it well: “If these artists were anywhere but in prison, our state and federal arts bodies would be in an uproar about the erosion of their rights to create and exhibit, the protection of their copyright and intellectual property and their right to have full access to arts and cultural activities.”
The PLS art auction in Brisbane raised much-needed funds for the service.
The auction’s title refers to the fact that the 23 paintings and drawings on offer were the last works donated to the PLS prior to the September legislation and were therefore exempted from it.
The exhibition contained satirical and political cartoons that lampoon the authorities and were rich in humour reflecting the reality of a life of confinement.
They comment on perceived corruption, institutionalised exploitation and injustices, and therefore offer a powerful political and social commentary.
Anything that can help prisoners build self-esteem may ultimately help keep them from returning to jail, which would save the community money.
The national annual cost of the prison system in Australia is $1.5 billion a year, about $70,000 per prisoner. Yet more than 40 per cent of prisoners will reoffend within two years of release.
According to a 2009 report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian prisoners have significant physical and mental health issues.
A week-long snapshot of incoming prisoners in Australia during 2009 showed that 25 per cent had a chronic condition such as asthma, cardiovascular disease or diabetes, 81 per cent were smokers, at least 52 per cent consumed alcohol at risky levels and 71 per cent had used illicit drugs during the previous 12 months.
Moreover, 37 per cent of prisoners reported having received a mental health diagnosis at some time and 43 per cent had received a head injury resulting in a loss of consciousness.
The report also shows that almost 40 per cent of prisoners reported having had a mental health disorder, almost 20 per cent were taking medication for a mental health-related condition at the time they entered prison and more than 30 per cent of inmates were referred to prison mental health services.
Sadly, it is often the case that first-time indigenous and non-indigenous prisoners only receive any proper treatment for their mental illness when they are incarcerated.
The arts have long demonstrated a transformative role in the regeneration of communities and the restoration of mental health and wellbeing.
There is clear evidence that active participation in artistic and cultural activities by prison inmates, whose work is recognised and sold outside prison, significantly improves prisoners’ self-esteem
It also reduces physical and mental health problems of indigenous and non-indigenous inmates, including helping them not to return to alcohol and other drug addiction.
Other states understand the regenerative effects of the creative arts within the prison system.
For example, young people in juvenile justice centres in NSW are making their own music through a program run by Australian and overseas disc jockeys called Heaps Decent, which is a hipster phrase about doing something decent to contribute to the world.
This program uses creativity to inspire underprivileged and often indigenous young people both inside and outside the juvenile justice system.
The same applies to the widely regarded Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company in Victoria, which works with women in prison, then in post-release, and fosters artistic endeavours with disempowered young women at risk in rural areas.
A big focus of the company’s work is the intergenerational cycles of poverty, abuse and disadvantage that lead to addiction, self-destructive behaviour, crime and thus institutionalisation.
Programs such as these are precisely what one would expect in a civil society seeking to help, rather than hinder, marginalised minorities.
The irony is that some prisons in Queensland recognise the importance of an inmate’s creative activity.
A program run by the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble last year worked with prisoners at the maximum-security Borallon Correctional Centre to explore
themes of loss and betrayal with a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
This makes the recent Queensland legislation appear even more ludicrous, as the state government penalises prisoners working in the visual arts while encouraging dance, music and writing in prisons.
To gain the best results and to encourage inmates not to be recidivists, a stand-alone, not-for-profit organisation should be set up to manage and co-ordinate arts and cultural programs in Queensland prisons.
The new legislation places Queensland Corrective Services in a position of extreme power and control over prisoner art. In the name of justice, rehabilitation, and human rights the Bligh government needs to rethink this punitive legislation.
Ross Fitzgerald was a long-serving member of the Queensland Parole Board. The Weekend Australian,January 29-30, 2011