For Rikers’s Most Troubled Inmates, Art Offers Hope

For Rikers’s Most Troubled Inmates, Art Offers Hope

Every weekday morning, Katie Hinson drives across the long bridge from the tip of Astoria, Queens, to the penitentiary on Rikers Island. She passes through three security checkpoints and heads to the women’s jail. Hinson is neither a correctional officer nor an administrator; she is among a handful of therapists who have dedicated themselves to helping Rikers inmates through making art.

For Hinson, each day consists of three to four one-hour group art therapy sessions with the inmates—or patients, as they’re referred to by the therapists. “When they know that I’m coming, they’re all seated in the dayroom,” Hinson told me when we met, along with the island’s art therapy supervisor Lesley Achitoff, in Astoria in June. “They’re all really invested, it’s kind of awesome,” Hinson continues. “I’ve started to take requests for music, which has been a great component. It’s something they’ve been able to choose, because they don’t otherwise have any choice for anything. I put on music and they come up and grab materials.”

  • Rikers art therapists Lesley Achitoff and Katie Hinson. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Art therapy is optional for inmates in the mental observation units at Rikers. The materials on offer are generally limited to what the therapists call dry mediums: oil and chalk pastels, coloring pens and pencils, and materials for collage. “We don’t use loose materials,” says Achitoff. “We wouldn’t just put paint on the table with patients struggling with mental illness because it’s dis-regulating for them. It can trigger them in certain ways if they have a traumatic background.” Wet materials are more emotionally charged, explains Hinson, and their very nature as liquids makes them more prone to accidents. Patients will sometimes become overwhelmed if they do something wrong. “As a therapist,” she says, “you want to support their egos.”

“We think that art materials connect to your unconscious.”

Paint is also one of the materials more likely to end up as contraband. And when materials go missing, patients must undergo invasive strip searches. In an environment where choices, never mind opportunities for personal expression and creativity, are at a minimum, inmates could be tempted to smuggle paint out of the class in order to color their hair or nails, Hinson explains. She tells me about one patient who carved her Department Of Corrections (DOC)-issued soap bars into pocket sculptures of images and names, and drew life-size murals on the walls of her cell while in solitary confinement.

Scissors, tape, and stickers are banned. Instead, the therapists will often offer their patients pre-cutout magazine clippings to piece together as collages, invite them to craft cards and letters for friends and family, or print the outlines of round mandalas for the patients to color in. “There are studies that show that if you work within a circle, your heart rate goes down,” says Achitoff. “But they’re very preoccupied with going outside the line.” If the inmates do, “they think they have to tear it up, because they’re very hard on themselves. These are people who have made lifetimes of mistakes, in their eyes. And they don’t want to make any more. They’re their own harshest critics.”

  • “There are studies that show that if you work within a circle, your heart rate goes down.” Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Achitoff leads a team of 11 art therapists, Hinson included, who work under the auspices of the Mental Health program at Rikers. The program receives its funding not from the DOC but from New York City Health + Hospitals Corporation, a public benefit corporation. They are part of a growing contingent of therapists from various disciplines—art, dance and movement, and, soon, music and drama—who work at Rikers to provide support for the jail’s population of incarcerated adolescents and adults.

Most of the inmates on Rikers Island have been charged but not sentenced; others are serving sentences under one year. A majority of the inmates, say the two art therapists, are suffering some form of PTSD, and anxiety or depression. The jail itself has been plagued by bad press, most recently around a delayed effort to abolish solitary confinement for those 21 years old and under, and the suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder. (Browder killed himself after he was released following a three-year stay at Rikers, which began when he was 16; he spent about two of those years in solitary.) But common to all prisons and jails are structures that, according to Renee Obstfeld, an instructor in the Art Therapy programs at NYU and SVA, mirror the abusive conditions inmates likely experienced growing up. To meet growing demand, Achitoff’s team will expand to 18 by the end of the year.

“We still have people who won’t go out in the yard because the feeling of almost-freedom is overwhelming for them.”

“What we’re talking about with people in the prison system is a lot of attachment-based trauma, which means, generally, that they’ve grown up in households with a lot of abuse. A lot of violence,” says Obstfeld. “And sadly the prison system itself can replicate a lot of those abuses. These are conditions where there are rigid hierarchies of power and the relational axes are along the lines of dominance and submission, intimidation and coercion, and secrecy.”

The effect of those abuses is the fragmentation of certain neuro-sequences our brains develop over the course of our lives—unconscious strategies that allow us to adapt to different social situations. In traumatic scenarios, in which the nervous system is at a “heightened state of arousal and vigilance,” she says, the development of neuro-structures allowing a person to be flexibly adaptive get neglected. One may also disavow the vulnerable parts of oneself in an act of self-preservation. All of this can lead to the experience of emotion as “so overwhelming it threatens to blow you apart.”

Art can help to mitigate the effects of abuse and incarceration by restoring those neuro-structures that enable patients to regulate their emotions. “One thing is the choice of materials a person might use,” Obstfeld says. “They can use materials that calm them, that stimulate them. Use of color. All of these artistic choices.”

  • A woman, incarcerated at 17, used collage to work through her gender and sexual identity. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

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The testimonies of patients in Rikers’s art therapy program bear out this relationship to artistic choice. Though I wasn’t able to speak with patients due to HIPAA regulations, Hinson shared a few handwritten letters from the inmates she’s worked with, all expressing their deep-felt appreciation of the therapy. “Art therapy has given me peace of mind,” one writes. “I love our Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday sessions. Sometimes I could be in a really pissed off mood then I’ll realize I have art therapy and my whole mood changes. When I do color, I put my all into those paintings.” Another she showed me, from a patient who was initially resistant to the therapy, reads: “Art means a lot to me. It reminds me of my childhood and being with my son. We colored all the time. I just want [you] to know that it is very relaxing, it puts me in a good mood and it brightens up my day when Hinson comes. The pictures the markers, everything.”

She saw the work as a representation of something more joyful than she had previously discovered in herself.

Though engaging in the therapy often surfaces memories for patients, the art therapists stress the importance of not revisiting past traumas. “We don’t want these groups to be unleashing trauma, that’s really not productive,” says Achitoff. “That’s a one-on-one thing. You don’t want to re-traumatize someone in a group, or re-traumatize someone else. Plus, it’s a population that is together 24 hours a day. There’s varying levels of trust within the group.” The therapists hope, instead, to enable patients to make small steps toward establishing better relationships with themselves and others.

What does success for one of their patients look like? They describe mini-breakthroughs—“the little successes,” says Hinson—in which patients share their materials with others in the class, or complete a work over the course of several sessions. In one particularly compelling case, a formerly resistant patient came around to the therapy and then volunteered to instruct new patients about the group’s rules.

“The group rules are life rules,” says Achitoff. “It’s about not criticizing and not throwing the materials, being respectful. We also talk about: What is respect? How do you show it? How do you let someone who is showing disrespect know that you don’t like it without shooting them? The younger people love having these conversations.” When patients adhere to the rules, and classes are going smoothly, a kind of “containment” is achieved.

It’s a word that crops up with some regularity in discussions about art therapy. Containment might seem a surprising therapeutic goal in the context of a jail. But rather than alluding to the jail’s mechanisms of control, it refers to a self-imposed form of control and safety in what the therapists concede is an extremely unsafe environment. Patients are enabled to locate within themselves a position of centeredness and calm. “There are some really ill people and sometimes our therapeutic goal for them is really just containment,” Hinson tells me at one point, “helping them find a place where they can breathe in peace and quiet for an hour.”

Containment finds a powerful metaphor in the manila folders therapists use to store each patient’s artwork. If art holds up a validating mirror to one’s reality, the folder becomes an expression of the freedom to define one’s own boundaries. Hinson encourages her patients to leave work with her in the folders rather than pasting it on their cell walls with toothpaste, which many of them want to do. This frequently leads to officers confiscating the artwork during searches. In therapy sessions, patients can return to their bodies of work that have been safely contained.

  • One patient had perceived herself as a dark person, but was surprised to find herself filling in the black lines of a swirling pattern emanating from a woman’s face with intense shades of purple, orange, yellow, and blue. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Art therapists subscribe to various schools of thought. But the staff at Rikers privilege these relationships—the patient’s projections on and self-discoveries within the materials and artwork they produce—and eschew Freudian diagnostics. One of Hinson’s patients, for instance, had perceived herself as a dark person, but was surprised to find herself filling in the black lines of a swirling pattern emanating from a woman’s face with intense shades of purple, orange, yellow, and blue. She saw the work as a representation of something more joyful than she had previously discovered in herself. Another woman, incarcerated at 17, used collage to work through her gender and sexual identity. The cover of the booklet she created features a close-up magazine cutout of an androgynous man wearing glitter makeup around his eyes and mouth. It’s framed by the inmate’s handwritten questions: “Beautiful?” “Hideous?” “What Are You?” “Who Are You?”

Art therapy is ultimately less concerned, however, with the finished product than with the process. “It’s a conversation,” says Hinson. “One of my patients drew the view of New York from Rikers, and we just used it to talk about what it would be like to be out there beyond the barbed fence. What would you be doing out there?” Even that, Achitoff says, can be triggering. “We still have people who won’t go out in the yard because the feeling of almost-freedom is overwhelming for them.”

The therapists train to navigate these sensitive dynamics and emotional responses, and images provide an entrypoint into discussions between the inmates—and between the patients and therapists—that are difficult but productive. “We think that art materials connect to your unconscious,” Achitoff explains. “If you can free yourself up of intellectualizing exactly what you’re gonna do and how you’re gonna do it, and you just pick up the materials and use them, information will emerge because it comes from within you.”

“I’ll realize I have art therapy and my whole mood changes. When I do color, I put my all into those paintings.”

Underlying the presence of art therapy programs in prisons is a commitment to the profound relationship humans have with material culture. It’s also a strong argument—if one was needed—for approaching a majority of criminals, even violent criminals, not as aberrations but as humans that society has in some way failed. Inmates in prisons that have access to these programs are humanized through their contact with art and their relationships with the therapists. (Though some therapists research patients’ criminal cases in depth, Hinson now avoids looking up articles about their often highly publicized stories so that she can approach them without judgement or trepidation.) Art therapy subscribes to what is a central pillar of most schools of psychotherapy: that the relationship between patient and therapist should provide a model for relationships in the real world. Consequently, Achitoff and Hinson both hope that circumstances allow for them to end, or “terminate,” their relationship with each patient, as they say, in the appropriate way.

“There’s intimacy within the therapeutic environment but we’ve all learned to have very strict boundaries,” Hinson says. “I think from the beginning, they know that it’s not going to carry on when they leave. We try to terminate the relationship in a positive way, because oftentimes they’ve had a lot of relationships that have ended negatively.” In many cases, however, the end of the relationship is out of their control. “Since people come and go often without warning, we try to provide them with validation all along, just in case,” adds Achitoff. “We set boundaries, and challenge them, but always validate their efforts and let them know how we feel privileged to work with them, because we never know if we’ll see them again. The courts make decisions without warning, people are moved to other facilities, so that typical termination is often not possible.”

  • Many patients want to paste their work on their cell walls with toothpaste, which frequently leads to officers confiscating it during searches. Photos by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

After release, some inmates have gone on to continue their progress with vital organizations like Artistic Noise, in Harlem, which helps released young prisoners transition back into society through art therapy. Obstfeld has also worked with outgoing inmates who are making the difficult journey back into the real world. But resources are limited, and art therapy programs in correctional facilities have historically been contested. Programs such as these tend to be the first thing on the chopping block when states go looking to make budget cuts. California’s Arts-in-Corrections program, for instance, was reinstated two years ago after a four-year hiatus brought on by statewide budget cuts.

The results Achitoff and Hinson have seen in the program at Rikers suggest that many more programs like it are needed. One of the letters Hinson showed me is a request that the patient asked her to pass on to the administration. She writes: “It’s the thought of she coming and be mindful that is something to look forward too. I would appreciate it if we can get more time or days because it is very useful and helpful for us.”

Over 2.3 million individuals are currently incarcerated in our country, according to a recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative. For a significant portion of those inmates, this is not their first time behind bars. If prisoners had more opportunity to learn how to regulate their emotions, develop skills to build stronger relationships, and find peace of mind, that might not be the case. Art therapy is but one method helping inmates take small but meaningful steps toward those goals. But its results are palpable and empathic in a way that might help level biases against the inmates.

A woman who, through unlocking her creativity, realizes she’s not an inherently dark person is a woman better equipped to step back into society—so is a patient who learns the value of the group’s primary rule: to respect one another.


—Tess Thackara


All artwork created by Rikers inmates in art therapy sessions. Photos by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

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