Positive Communication

Wofford College student brings the power of art to a Spartanburg, South Carolina jail

Wofford College student brings the power of art to a Spartanburg, South Carolina jail

Students in Katie Harmon’s Therapeutic Arts Program at the Spartanburg County Detention Center are given the opportunity to not only learn about art, but to create it themselves

As a Bonner Scholarship recipient, Wofford College senior Katie Harmon is required to spend 10 hours a week in community service. She never imagined herself working in a jail, however, until she got an unexpected request from one of her professors.

“I worked in the Northside of Spartanburg for three and a half years, mostly with an after-school program at the Northwest Recreation Center,” says Harmon, who is an art history major and studio art minor. “This past fall, Haley Guss, the AmeriCorps VISTA (worker) at the Spartanburg County Detention Center, asked for Wofford students who were potentially interested in working with therapeutic arts. Dr. Karen Goodchild (an associate professor of art history and department chair) referred me to Haley, and from there, we began corresponding and eventually started the program.”

Harmon and Guss’s Therapeutic Arts Program brings the arts to inmates in the form of both art history lessons and art therapy. Harmon held her first class in November 2014 in conjunction with four marriage and family therapists. The purpose is to help inmates work through the ideas of restorative justice.

“Restorative justice is more forgiveness-based as opposed to the standard retributive justice, which is punishment-based,” says Harmon. “We’re focused on helping inmates find some positive means of communication so that they can more positively deal with the crime that they’ve committed and learn about forgiveness. We try to show them that, yes, you did something wrong, and you’re working with the consequences, but you have a future beyond this.”

The overarching focus of the program is personal development and forward and positive thinking. The eventual goal is to lower inmate depression and anxiety rates. The art history aspect provides additional lessons on people and events from the past that can serve as models of behavior.

“The majority of the inmates are below a high-school reading level and have never been exposed to artists like van Gogh or Matisse. We’re building this base of artistic and cultural knowledge that they can recall and use,” says Harmon. “Now they know of people like Nelson Mandela. The inmates have especially been inspired by the Mandela quote, ‘Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.’”

Currently, the Therapeutic Arts Program is raising money in order to sustain the program. Many of the inmates have donated their work for a benefit auction. A portion of the proceeds will go toward the purchase of supplies for the program. The rest will support the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network. The SCVAN provides funds to victims of crime so that they can have access to advocates and other necessities.

“The most important thing I’ve taken away is that everyone is human, and even though you’re incarcerated or have done something wrong, you’re still a person,” says Harmon. “So many people commit crimes because of other circumstances. They aren’t inherently bad, they’re just trying to get by and don’t know how to do it in the right way.”

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