The Dominion Post

Art unlocks doors on the inside

Christchur­ch Men’s Prison is using art to teach prisoners about life, reports Jack van Beynen.


At Christchur­ch Men’s Prison, the roads, buildings and wires are grey. When the wind blows southerly the sky is grey too, and the smell of the prison pig farm hangs over everything.

But in the past 18 months, splashes of colour have started appearing.

In the Youth Unit, the walls of the buildings are decorated with vibrant murals. In Matapuna, a unit that rehabilita­tes violent offenders, there are paintings on tall vertical panels.

On the outer wall of the Kotuku unit is a mural featuring metal relief sculptures of its namesake bird.

The bird sculptures were made by Ted*, a prisoner. He is one of many inmates involved in the prison’s art initiative.

That scheme was recognised at the Arts Access Awards, where it was awarded the Correction­s Leadership Award 2017.

The prison’s citation commends its ‘‘commitment to arts education and artistic expression as a tool supporting the rehabilita­tion process of prisoners across the prison; the strength of its community partnershi­ps; and its focus on artistic expression with offenders in the Youth Unit’’.

Ted drew for fun sometimes on ‘‘the outside’’, but it’s behind the wire that his artistic talents have flourished.

He has made a host of artworks during his time in prison: paintings, sketches, and more recently metal sculptures.

Like many inmates, he learned to weld in the prison’s workshop, but unlike others he turned his skills to other purposes than repairing rubbish skips and making barbecues and pens for the pig farm.

The kotuku, or white herons, were Ted’s first foray into metal sculpture. They are part of a mural artwork that has a painted nature scene in the background as well as carved elements.

He had to figure out how to construct the sculptures himself – cutting out the pieces of metal, layering them up, welding the bird together and grinding and polishing it – but his welding tutor let him ‘‘go for it’’.

The first bird took him three weeks, but the second took only five days. Since then he has made a set of Chinese dragon sculptures, too. ‘‘All the other guys are making rubbish bins and here I am making a little zoo,’’ he says.

Much of Ted’s work contains messages about the natural world.

‘‘You know they’re just ripping our forests apart and ripping our swamplands apart at the moment, just getting rid of all the natural resources, it peeves me off a bit,’’ he says.

Art has taught Ted to weld – a skill that could help him find employment once he gets out. But one of the reasons he loves it is it keeps his brain busy.

‘‘In here it’s all about being active, all the time. We’re walking around here 14 hours a day, just doing our courses and things. We’ve got nothing to take our minds off it apart from playing a bit of touch rugby,’’ he says.

He has seen art help other prisoners in the facility too. Some younger prisoners stopped tagging once he taught them to draw, while another inmate, who has anger issues, uses an adult colouring-in book to calm down.

Prisoners in the Youth Unit – those aged 17 to 20 – have been decorating the interior and exterior walls of their compound with murals for the past 18 months.

Luan Smith, the prison’s programmes co-ordinator, says they have noticed a sharp reduction in graffiti around the facility since the murals were introduced.

Introducin­g colour to the prison environmen­t also has important benefits for the inmates. Smith says many are unsettled by the amount of colour when they are released into the outside world; the murals make their transition easier.

Acting prison director David Pattinson says the arts programme has had myriad benefits: the developmen­t of improved problem solving, adaptabili­ty, leadership, team work, confidence and self-esteem.

At least some of those benefits are due to tutor Corina Hazlett.

Hazlett, a practising artist, had a background in doing art therapy with children. She was initially nervous when she took on the prison job in 2010.

One of her most rewarding experience­s on the job was curating two fundraiser auctions of prisoner art. The sales, which saw more than 200 works produced, raised money for earthquake recovery and the Youth Alive trust.

Hazlett says art can be confidence-boosting, and can teach teamwork.

For some, the only group they’ve ever been part of is a gang. Working with others on a project gets them talking and cooperatin­g. Sometimes producing art can bring up psychologi­cal issues prisoners were previously reluctant to talk about – or even unaware of.

‘‘Some people paint quite dark stuff, and that’s OK by me, although we’re obviously not allowed to have anything that is gang related,’’ Hazlett says.

Ted was moved to another unit before his sculptures were installed, and as a result has only seen them as part of the whole artwork once.

‘‘I thought it looked quite cool, it was like ‘far out’, you know. Hopefully other people that come through that unit will see this is what you can do at engineerin­g, not just sit around and be in gangs and stuff,’’ he says.

His kotuku are good – sharp and lifelike, like they might unfurl their wings and fly away.

* Ted’s name has been changed for this article.

 ?? DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ ?? Youth offenders work on a mural outside Kiwi Unit at Christchur­ch Men’s Prison.
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ Youth offenders work on a mural outside Kiwi Unit at Christchur­ch Men’s Prison.

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