By James Evans
This article was originally published in Issue 9, Fiftieth Year of The Minstrel (February 18, 2016). Click here to view the entire issue.
Also, click here to watch The Minstrel’s interview with Allison Krall and Erin O’Neill.
Two DeSales students are interning this semester with an art therapy program called “The Journey Home,” which helps current and former female convicts of the Northampton County Prison system reintegrate into their local community.
Juniors Allison Krall, a psychology major, and Erin O’Neill, a criminal justice major, have been working with Dr. Bonnie Winfield of Lafayette College in The Journey Home. This is the first year the program is offered to DeSales students. It allows interns to interact, observe and create with the current and former prisoners through various art projects.
Prior to being fully cleared to interact with the women in the program, Krall and O’Neill had to participate in an introductory clearance phase, which detailed the potential dangers that could arise when working with violent prisoners. This clearance phase detailed the various methods of harm the women might commit, such as constructing simple weapons from everyday objects.
“It was absolutely nerve-wracking at first to see all this,” Krall said. “Especially because it is certainly not something usually experienced in my surroundings.”
However, both Krall and O’Neill said this stirring introduction did not correspond with their actual experience once they were in the art studio.
“I think most people automatically associate prisoners with ‘bad people.’ However, they are so similar to ‘everyday people,’ you almost forget they are prisoners,” O’Neill said.
The Journey Home encompasses many different forms of art, ranging from painting to sculptures and even to making seasonal crafts like Valentine’s Day cards. All of the art is displayed in the gallery that Winfield has kept from the six years of the program, made by former and current prisoners alike.
Some of the ground rules for the students include not asking about the reasons why the women are or were in prison; not being able to erase, delete or withhold any creation; and not criticizing another or one’s own work. This, O’Neill says, is why the art is “so telling,” as “it is all we have to go off of” when interacting with the women. For example, a simple project, such as creating an art journal, developed into an opportunity for some of the women to detail their past issues with addiction.
Projects and conversations are facilitated by both Winfield and the students using the art as a multifaceted medium for both discourse and understanding. Individuals share their art with fellow women in the program to promote a mutual understanding of the reasons to why they are or were in prison, to discuss coping methods and even to address the regular, mundane struggles of daily life.
As the program progresses, Krall and O’Neill will take a more hands-on approach, eventually creating their own projects during the therapy sessions. In doing so, both student and prisoner alike help to have a deeper understanding of oneself and each other.
Thus far, the largest benefit both Krall and O’Neill attribute is the ability to better understand the women of the program.
“When I went in I was picturing ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ but instead found everyday, regular people that just made some mistakes,” Krall said.
The program runs the rest of the spring semester. Any student interested in volunteering can contact Winfield at email@example.com.