Photo by Sue Etheridge. Mural created by patients at Butner prison.

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The Missing Peace: A Conversation with Sue Etheridge

“It’s my belief that beauty changes the culture. I shouldn’t say changes,
I should say Improves the culture.”
-Sue Etheridge


Researchers often measure the success of prison by the rate of recidivism, which is the proportion at which persons released from prison are rearrested. Recidivism data needs context, and this is a story about one of the many other ways that we may understand, implement, and measure success in correctional facilities: art therapy. The Bureau of Justice Correctional Surveys and the U.S. Census State Population Estimates indicate that in 1982, 1 in 60 adults in North Carolina were under correctional control and by 2009 that ratio had increased to 1 in 38. Two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years, and three-quarters (76.6%) were arrested within 5 years. Researchers, advocates, and correctional industries are increasingly looking to implement evidence-based programs to reduce the proportion of re-offending prisoners.

One intervention implemented in correctional facilities across the country is art therapy. David Gussak, professor and chair of the Florida State University Department of Art Education has extensively researched the measurable impact of art therapy in prisons. Gussak notes that “inmates have an inherent mistrust for verbal disclosure, and a well-grounded fear of other prisoners taking advantage of voiced vulnerabilities.” Gussak makes the case that art therapy is an effective intervention to reduce recidivism. In his 2003 quantitative pilot study, 39 male adult prisoners from a correctional institution in a rural area of Florida’s panhandle improved in their attitude, compliance with staff and rules, and socialization skills following art therapy. The prisoners indicated statistically significant changes in their depressive symptoms and mood.

Sue Etheridge is a registered art therapist who currently practices at the Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina. She previously worked with inmates at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, for nearly 25 years. Etheridge coordinated an exhibit at the Federal Medical Center in Butner in 2008 and again in 2011 that fostered reflection on the meaning of peace on an individual, familial, and communal level titled “The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama.” In February of 2014, the fourteenth Dalai Lama honored Etheridge in recognition of her contributions to humanitarian efforts.

As a journalist, social science researcher, data analyst, and artist, I am interested in the intersection of quantifiable change and self-expression. It is part of my life’s mission to facilitate conversations between survivors of domestic and sexual violence, artists, and researchers in order to innovate care, improve lives, and save money with evidence-based practice. Sue Etheridge is a steadfast innovator on this road to save lives. I interviewed Etheridge by phone from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to explore her thoughts and reflections on her work as an art therapist working in prisons.


How has your career in art therapy changed you as an artist?

I grew up in a family that always had art materials around. My mother was an excellent seamstress and my dad, in his retirement, became a painter. I went back to school as a returning student after my children were born and got an undergraduate degree in commercial art. I worked in the industry as an artist for several years and then discovered how my own artwork was therapeutic to me, and I then pursued a master’s degree in art therapy.

How does art therapy work to address the effects of incarceration?

I will give someone art materials, and they’ll ask, “What should I draw?” I’ll say, “I have no idea. You’re in charge. You’re the boss of that piece of paper, so it’s up to you to make these decisions,” prompting them to make them decide.

I think long-term incarceration takes away people’s options—takes away their belief that they can make their own decisions, so that’s one of the things I do. I just refuse to make decisions for them. They have the materials, and they have the options.

How do you use repetition or craft with your patients in art therapy?

One of the goals is that my patients feel successful about their work, so sometimes they begin with a planned geometric figure such as the mandala. It’s been my experience that the stronger the product, the stronger the therapeutic intervention has been. If they can make something that they believe expresses themselves with some sort of accuracy, that they are making what they mean to make and communicating that to me in the therapeutic relationship and others in the group, then that enhances the strength of the therapy. So it’s product and process. If you want a reference on that it would be Edith Kramer, who is one of the founding mothers in the field of art therapy.

What is the greatest predictive factor of therapeutic success?

I think it’s the personal relationship between me and the patient. I should have said that differently: it’s the relationship between myself, the patient, and the art materials, because the art materials are magic. Often it happens pretty rapidly because of just the joy and the pleasure of working with color and working with beauty in a place where they’re not accustomed to that.

We used to do the mural of the month at Butner, and that was done by the psychiatric patients, and every month we would devise and complete a mural on paper that’s three feet high and eight feet wide, and it would be a group activity where they would need to come up with a theme for the mural and what materials and techniques they would use. And they would make this mural and then we’d have a prominent place to display it in the institution, and it was a place where it was vulnerable. It was a well-traveled hallway where people would walk by it on their way to food services three times a day, and the mural could be hurt. But it was a matter of pride in having beauty in the environment that it was a big no-no to hurt the mural, and they would work together as the mental health unit to keep it safe, and sometimes it became a barometer of the social climate of the mental health unit—to see whether the mural was being tampered with or not.

Sometimes inmates would say, “Why don’t you put the mural behind glass?” “Why don’t you put it high up on the wall where nobody can reach it?” or “Why don’t you put it in another room?” Part of the process of having the mural was keeping the mural in good shape so if it would get torn or something, I’d fix it and put it back up. And if it got torn again, I’d fix it and put it back up again. But it was relatively rare for it to get damaged. On the occasions when it did get damaged, you know, it was my statement that I care about them, that I care about them having good things in their life, and they had great respect for that.

What have you learned from your patients?

I would have some people come in who knew how to make a different origami shape and they would teach it to me. We had some patients who were actually artists on the streets. We had a medical patient who was an artist, and he did the most original work that I have seen in the prison, which was he would carve and dry out orange peels. They would be geometric or floral shapes. He would carve them into these shapes and then he would dry them, and eventually he got enough of them, probably 150 of them, different sizes. Some of them he would feature the orange side of the peel, and sometimes the white side of the peel. He arranged a bunch of them into a circle on the grass in a place where it had clover growing on the recreational yard, and he arranged them into a big circular shape and had the inmate photographer photograph them. He sent it home and someone in his family made copies, and he used them as a Christmas wreath and sent Christmas cards out with them.

What misconceptions do people have about art therapy?

I have been faced with two extremes. There are people who think that if they do art work in my presence, they become transparent and I know everything about them, and that is not true. And they think that I go to the art museum and look at the art and I can diagnose the artists from the work, and that is not true.

But on the other hand there are people who think, oh, it’s just something to do with your time, and it’s much more therapeutic than a time filler.

It seems like among people who work with therapists or know about art therapists, it’s almost like a religion. There are believers and nonbelievers.