Art Therapy Helps Offenders Hone Creative Skills and Their Minds

Author: John Bull

Under an innovative therapy program, offenders in Central Prison have been crafting Christmas ornaments before the holiday season.

The work is therapy. The offenders are on the mental health caseload at the state’s largest prison.

“I tell you, they are the most innovative people anywhere,’’ said Sue Etheridge, an art therapist at the prison. “This is good therapy. It lets them focus on something outside themselves. In confinement like this, people tend to get lost in their own thoughts.”

The offenders have made sleighs, garlands, lighthouses, paper flowers and starbursts. They fold. They bend. They glue. They color.

They have creatively crafted their wares out of the materials at hand – milk cartons, bendy straws, toilet paper rolls, envelopes, construction paper, crayons and markers. One ornament is a replica of the Biltmore House in Asheville.

This is adjunctive therapy, which supplements traditional mental health treatment to maximize its effectiveness. In this case, the art therapy helps the offenders hone their skills, focus their minds and gives them purpose. This is treatment through art and art is used to create a therapeutic environment.

This aspect of Etheridge’s job became unremarkable to her long, long ago. She has been an art therapist in prisons for 30 years, starting her career at the federal prison in Butner.

“I've witnessed Sue's creative magic inside prisons for almost 20 years,” said Dr. Gary Junker, director of behavioral health for the prison system. “It typically starts with her saying 'you're not gonna believe this idea I have and tell me if it's too far out there'. The next thing you know, offenders are engaged, and the magic begins.”

The tree-decoration project began in May. Roughly 70 offenders have participated in 45-minute blocks on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Some participated from their housing dorm in the Therapeutic Diversion Unit.

So far, more than 220 ornaments have been finished.

The ornaments will be taken to the Governor’s Mansion later this year so other offenders who work there can decorate the 18-foot-tall tree with them.

“Being able to provide a service seen by the Governor, his staff and the general public gives offenders incentive and pride in what they’re doing,” said Central Prison Warden Eddie Thomas. “Programs like this allow our mental health workers to see our offenders in a different perspective. The offenders see how productive they can be and take pride in what they create.”

Etheridge said, “This project is making a difference. People are concentrating, are accomplishing things, and are proud of their work. Prison is a place where beauty is kind of hard to find.”

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