A.R.T. & Justice Initiative Expands Art and Storytelling Program

A.R.T. & Justice Initiative, with Dr. Helen Brown as lead, has received funding from SSHRC to expand its Art and Storytelling Program to Promote Wellbeing and Governance in British Columbia Prisons.

Painting from collection

Dr. Helen Brown and her A.R.T. & Justice Research Program have been conducting art and storytelling-based participatory research projects at various prison sites in BC for several years, building on partnerships with the Correctional Services of Canada since 2014. At the start of the the pandemic, the team pivoted research funds so that through art, creativity and community reciprocity, they might address the extreme social isolation and worsening mental health impacts of the pandemic. Now, with the support of a Social Sciences and Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant they are expanding their scope to engage incarcerated individuals at five prison sites in British Columbia in redefining good governance, emphasizing human rights, and implementing strategies for decolonization, inclusion, equity, and anti-racism. 

The project, entitled "Art & Storytelling towards Holistic Wellbeing, Community Building, and Collaborative Governance for People in Prison and on Parole in British Columbia," is aimed at addressing structural barriers to holistic mental wellness within the correctional system.

Soap carvingCarceral institutions have long been recognized as being rooted in criminological deficit models and colonial ideologies. These issues have only been exacerbated in the Canadian context by the implementation of pandemic protocols, which have resulted in unintended consequences, including reduced access to visitation, programming, Indigenous Elders and increasing cell time and the use of structured intervention units, previously named solitary confinement. 

In response to these challenges, the A.R.T. & Justice research program will use arts-based interventions to support holistic mental wellbeing, encompassing spiritual, physical, and social health. Through creative expression and sharing, the project seeks to empower incarcerated artists to promote civic engagement, collaborative governance, peer agency, and leadership.

The initial project was supported by a SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant, which allowed the distribution of art and storytelling kits to 200 incarcerated individuals across three BC federal prisons during the pandemic. A study involving 50 participants showed that creativity and art had measurable short-term benefits to holistic wellbeing. However, longitudinal evidence on the sustained benefits of participatory art-based interventions in prisons is lacking.

The next phase of the A.R.T. & Justice Initiative's will expand collaborative governance scholarship into prison settings, explore how art interventions can foster good governance and community building, and promote inclusivity by providing employment and research training opportunities to currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.

By harnessing the power of art in carceral spaces, this initiative aims to challenge oppressive governance structures, investigate ways to enhance agency, wellbeing, and collaborative governance within prisons, and adapt art-based collaborative governance to support priorities post-release. The resulting evidence will be invaluable to scholars, activists, and stakeholders in fields such as criminology, legal studies, government, Indigenous and anti-colonial studies, and arts-based research methodologies.

Members of the A.R.T & Justice Initiative

About A.R.T. & Justice Initiative: The A.R.T. & Justice Initiative is dedicated to promoting wellbeing, community building, and collaborative governance among incarcerated individuals and people on parole in British Columbia through arts-based interventions and participatory research.

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