ITT: Inmates Find Self-Expression Through Art

Sep 8, 2017

Mental illness bleeds far beyond the general population in the US. Those serving time in Texas Criminal Justice Department prisons also suffer with various diagnoses. At Lubbock’s Montford Unit, some of those with mental illness have art as part of their therapy.

The detail and symmetry in one inmate’s drawings is stunning. He draws wildlife only - animals, birds, reptiles. Health law prohibits naming him. He’s identified on small white cards in front of his creations by only his age, 36, and his diagnosis - major depressive disorder.

Dr. Cynthia Jumper, the vice president of Special Health Programs at Texas Tech’s Health Science Center, said the art the inmates do gives them a way of expressing themselves and also reveals their thought processes.

“We don’t just throw medicines at them, antipsychotics,” Jumper said. “If you look, our use of medications has not changed over the past 20 to 30 years because we’ve learned that you can’t just medicate them. You have to teach them life sciences. You have to teach them how to take care of themselves and art is one way that does that.”

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More than 200 health sciences center employees work at the state prison. Texas prison system officials contract for the health center’s services in the western part of the state.

This is the second year for the prison’s art therapy program. About 40 inmates in the 550-bed psychiatric wing at the Montford Unit participate in the art program. They get colored pencils and pens, and have small canvasses on which to draw.

Their mental health diagnoses include schizophrenia, and disorders such as bipolar, borderline personality, adjustment, bereavement, major depressive and schizoaffective.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as many as 18 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails and prisons have a serious mental health condition.

Anita Reyna, director of social work for the health sciences center, said one inmate doing artwork barely speaks 10 words, and even when he does, those words don’t make sense. “But when I saw his art, it was amazing,” she said. “You realize how much is in his mind that he simply cannot verbalize.”

The Montford Art Exhibit opened last week at the health sciences center and was on display at last week’s First Friday Art Trail. It will next be displayed during the South Plains Fair. After that, some of the drawings will adorn walls around the health sciences center.

“I want as many people to see it as possible, and the patients were excited about hearing their artwork was going to be shown,” Reyna said. But according to her, some inmates were nervous realizing that compared to others, their artwork was simple. “But that’s what we’re trying to teach them, it’s not on a grade scale, it’s your expression and no one can grade that,” she said.

What is that the inmates get out of their art? Denise Bartley, the director of psychology at Montfort, said it’s about connection.

“It gives them the opportunity to connect in a way with society or with the world outside of where they have to live. It means so much to them to be able to do something that people from what they call the free world are able to see or relate to,” Bartley said. “ It gives them the opportunity to express themselves.”

Nick Blythe, the managing director of the psychiatric care wing at Montford, said there are effects from the art that go beyond creativity and therapy. He explained, “The biggest thing we see is a more positive attitude. They act out less. We have fewer uses of force. We have less difficulty managing the offenders. And the additional therapy and all the other things that we do gives them something to do beside sit in their housing and think on how bad things are.”