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.