Arts light up new paths home for Aboriginal prisoners

02. Ronald Roberts-Family on Country

The Torch Project has shone a light on what it means for Aboriginal prisoners in Victoria to reconnect with their culture through art. The Torch’s Statewide Indigenous Arts Officer in Prisons and Community, Kent Morris outlines an innovative pilot program he’s been running and why it needs to continue.

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Namib Matamta - Broad Shields.
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Dennis Thorpe - Turtle Dreaming-Hunting and Gathering
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Peter Smith - Rainbow Trout Dreaming
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Steve Verde - Snake Dreaming
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Uncle Ron Murray - Murray Cod
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Ronald Roberts - Rainbow Serpent
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Ronald Roberts - Family on Country
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Shane Lovett - Deep Bay Dream

“The main thing for the blokes in prison is to have some hope. This program said there’s a better place out there. And there is. But you have to work for it. You’ve got to want it. You got to work at it. If you do, you can achieve anything. I’ve done it. I’m living proof.” – Participant

Who was involved in the project?

The Torch Project worked with 118 Aboriginal prisoners across 10 Victorian prisons from July 2011 to January 2013, to support the production of works of art in various forms, from painting and pottery to making traditional implements like coolamons, clapsticks and didgeridoos from branches sourced from the prison grounds. A number of the paintings are displayed above.

The pilot program came out of early work done by The Torch with the Aboriginal prison community in 2010, under the banner of the Yalukit Willam Ngargee Festival in St Kilda, which culminated in an exciting exhibition of their artworks, titled CONFINED 2.

As a result, the Statewide Indigenous Arts Officer in Prisons and Community Pilot Program was set up for 18 months, within the context of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement (VAJA, and funded by the Federal Attorney General through the Proceeds of Crime Act and by the Office for the Arts through their Indigenous Cultural Support Scheme).

Developing the annual CONFINED exhibition was a key feature of the pilot. Participation numbers rose from 23 from the 2010 exhibition, to 49 in the first year of the pilot and 66 in the second year. The exhibition attracted about 1,000 visitors, with strong support also from both mainstream and Aboriginal media (see links below).

What role did it seek to play?

The program engaged Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders in art and cultural exploration that looked toward strengthening ties to Country, Culture, family history and community coupled with post release vocational support and exhibition opportunities.

It accords with research 1 highlighting the significant role arts programs can play in reconnecting Aboriginal Indigenous prisoners with their culture. With its focus on building sustainable post-release pathways, The Torch hoped to address the disproportionately high rates of Aboriginal recidivism. A particular focus has been on generating opportunities to foster new networks and to build self-generated income.

What were the findings?

As a community collaboration, the pilot program has received positive feedback from key stakeholders, prison staff and, perhaps most importantly, from those participants currently in prison, those who have since been released, and their families.

Of the 26 prisoners who have continued their connection with The Torch since their release, 18 are known not to have returned to prison after being released. Four returned to prison on pre-existing charges, and the remaining two died shortly after their release.

A small number of other artists engaged with the program have since been released from prison but have not remained in contact with The Torch since then.

The Torch Project commissioned an evaluation of the project. Those who were interviewed for the evaluation said it had engendered:

  • an increased sense of wellbeing and confidence
  • new levels of trust that many of the artists had not experienced before
  • opportunities for cultural reconnection
  • pre-release skills and exploration of post-release career opportunities
  • improved participation in other prison programs
  • increased awareness of arts and culture among prison staff and the wider community
  • a new level of support with its inside/outside approach
  • better relationships with family and the wider community.

What’s happening now?

Despite strong moves and changes created through the Aboriginal Justice Agreement, Aboriginal people in Victorian prisons still lack Aboriginal-specific cultural rehabilitation programs and services that are delivered by Aboriginal people in Victorian prisons.

The Torch is currently searching for funding for both the next CONFINED exhibition and the Indigenous Arts Officer in Prisons and Community program.

As an extension of the program, Aboriginal artist Maree Clarke is working with a small group of emerging artists recently released from prison to create a collaborative exhibition of new works for the Wominjeka festival in Footscray in January  2014.

“It was a big uplift to have people from the outside connect with and invite participation and work from the inside for a show. It kept us interested and focused and away from the drugs and the bullshit going on in there. Talking industry was really important. It was a big uplift having them (the Torch) talking to us. It was like we were out of the dark and into the light.” – Participant

For further information please contact Kent Morris at indigenousarts@thetorch.org.au or phone 0421 942 402.

Further reading:

The Age: Art offers prisoners way to break vicious cycle
National Indigenous Times: CONFINED 5 Exhibition success
ABC: Confined 5
Herald Sun: Indigenous prisoner art exhibition inspires inmates to connect with culture

1. A Cheng, Prison Art Programs for Aboriginal People: A research paper, Sydney College of Fine Arts, 2009.

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