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The art program healing Indigenous offenders

1 April 2020 at 8:28 am
Maggie Coggan
Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated group in the world. But The Torch’s in- prison and in-community art programs are turning the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates around, and keeping them out of prison, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise. 

Maggie Coggan | 1 April 2020 at 8:28 am


The art program healing Indigenous offenders
1 April 2020 at 8:28 am

Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated group in the world. But The Torch’s in- prison and in-community art programs are turning the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates around, and keeping them out of prison, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up just under 2 per cent of the Australian population. 

But in our prisons, the percentage sits much higher. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders represent 28 per cent of the population inside.  

Indigenous men are 15 times more likely to go to prison than non-Indigenous men, and Indigenous women are 21 times more likely to go to prison than non-Indigenous women. 

It’s statistics like these that The Torch is trying to change. 

From little things, big things grow 

It started as a one-off exhibition of 20 artworks over 10 years ago. 

Today, The Torch’s annual exhibition, Confined, boasts over 250 pieces of art, and more importantly is a fully fledged arts, cultural and arts vocational program run across 15 prisons, supporting hundreds of Indigenous men and women to reconnect with their culture, and providing a pathway towards rehabilitation.

Kent Morris, a Barkindji man and CEO of The Torch, tells Pro Bono News that after a few years of the Confined exhibition, the enterprise was receiving continuous feedback from the prisons that painting was making a difference to the men and women inside.  

From there it was Morris’ job to develop an art-based program that would lower rates of Indigenous incarceration. 

The Old Moray Eel, by Keith

Sunset Cockatoo, by Stacey

He recalls that as soon as he started talking to the prisoners it was clear that the program had to be as much about connecting the prisoners with their culture as it was about mixing colours. 

“Whenever I visited a prison to get an understanding of what the program would look like… [the prisoners] didn’t know what they were meant to be painting or what their stories were,” he says.

“The first question I was always asked [by the prisoners] was could I tell them what their totem was.”  

A totem is a natural object, plant or animal inherited by members of a clan or family as their spiritual emblem. It defines a person’s roles and responsibilities as well as their relationships with each other and creation.

“There was this incredible vacuum around cultural identity and not having cultural information to even know what to paint,” Morris says. 

He says he knows from his own experience how important that is. 

“As with many Indigenous community members, I have a history of family separations and all of the events that can unfold around the transgenerational trauma that can come from that,” he says. 

“And I was very fortunate to have the support of the Indigenous community to put the pieces of my cultural identity and family history back, and was really encouraged through my cultural journey by expressing and engaging with activities like art.” 

For the in-prison program, The Torch employs Indigenous arts officers to provide targeted cultural and art resources to artists, together with advice and encouragement as they develop their art practice. 

Upon release from prison, participants can choose to remain in The Torch program as they transition back into the community, where they receive support from Indigenous arts officers to continue to develop their art practice after release. 

Economic freedom 

The Torch also helps prisoners earn an income by curating exhibitions and maintaining a physical and online gallery. Post-release participants help install and promote these exhibitions as a way to build their skills in the art industry.   

The money from all artworks sold is put into a trust until prisoners are released, or can be released to family members while they are inside.   

Kent Morris and artist, Chris Austin

But this hasn’t always been the case. Up until 2016 it was illegal in Victoria for prisoners to earn a living. But following years of campaigning, advocacy efforts, and research supported by the Victorian Ombudsman that proved cultural learning and economic independence through art could address the climbing recidivism rates for Indigenous men and women, the Victorian government developed the Aboriginal Arts Policy

This allowed men and women participating in The Torch program to sell their artworks while still in custody, which Morris says was a massive game changer. 

“Having that economic capital is critical in the changes that can be made upon release,” he says. 

“We’ve seen quite an extraordinary array of men and women support their family from the inside and develop a real sense of responsibility, confidence and self-esteem – all the aspects that are generally missing when people first join our program.”  

He also says having some money behind them gives the prisoners more of a chance to get back on their feet when they leave jail.

“There is a massive homelessness crisis for Aboriginal men and women coming out of prison because they often don’t have the money to find stable accommodation,” Morris says.  

“If they have the ability to find housing, they can then make headway into education and employment opportunities. The flow-on effects are quite extraordinary.” 

A different kind of model 

Ensuring that 100 per cent of the profits goes to the incarcerated artists means The Torch’s programs are funded entirely by the government and philanthropic donors, which is a little different to how a social enterprise would normally be set up. 

“I feel like we’ve developed into more of an art centre that might exist to support remote communities, except that our community is incarcerated or just released,” Morris says.

But despite this, he says they are wholly financially sustainable because of how successful the program has been, and good governance. 

“We have a really strong board with a strong financial position at this point in time,” he says.

He also puts The Torch’s success down to staying true to the simplicity of the program, and the fact that the solutions are led by the community experiencing the disadvantage.  

“Of course we’re always building and expanding the program so we can provide more opportunity, but the core philosophy around how we support Indigenous men and women by putting culture and cultural identity at the centre of it hasn’t changed,” he says. 

“Our community has that knowledge and philosophy and the history and abilities and strengths, but it doesn’t often get the opportunity to lead and drive the solution.” 

Morris says the data, and what he has witnessed first hand, demonstrates the critical importance of the in-community support component. 

“There was one fella in the program who had been in and out of jail many times that I had to work particularly hard on because he had a lot of trust issues,” he explains. 

After establishing a relationship with him, Morris says the participant was able to produce artwork that connected him with his culture, and put some money in his pocket to make different decisions. But when he returned to a former relationship, things started to go downhill. 

“He was able to see that things were spiralling out of control, and one day he just rang me and said Kent, ‘Can you come and get me? I need to go back to my country’, which was out near Warrnambool,” he explains.   

“So I got in the car and picked up him and all the belongings he had and took him back out to his country. He went back to painting and was able to find economic stability for the first time.” 

Program evaluation data from 2018 shows that out of the people who had stayed in the in-community program for over 12 months, only 11 per cent returned to prison. 

This compares to the 2016-17 recidivism rate in Victoria of 53.4 per cent for Indigenous prisoners and 42.8 per cent for non-Indigenous prisoners. 

The Torch has grown exponentially in the last decade. The enterprise now employs 14 people, 2 of whom are past participants of the program who work as in-prison and in-community support workers.

Staff from The Torch

In 2019, the organisation hosted 11 external exhibitions, including its annual blockbuster event, Confined, which now boasts over 250 pieces of artwork – a big jump from the 20 it started out with all those years ago.  

Morris says the program is now trying to keep up with demand. 

“I guess it’s a good problem to have, but we are just trying to keep up with it all,” he says. 

In terms of Morris’ hopes and dreams for the future of the enterprise, he describes his answer as a little unusual. 

My dream is that The Torch doesn’t need to be here,” he says. 

“What I want is for incarceration rates to be commensurate with our population, to be 2.6 per cent of the prison population, not 30 percent. 

“But until that point, we’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing.”  

Interested in finding out more? The Torch will run its annual exhibition, Confined 11 from 14 May to June 7 at the Glen Eira City Council Gallery or online. And in the mean time, check out the artwork at the Torch’ online store here.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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