Limitations on the Arts in Prison; Restrictive Narrative Identity and the Performance of Reform

  • Bridget Keehan

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    In this thesis I make the case that arts practice in prison has largely been appropriated by the discourse of rehabilitation and that other possible reasons for advocating the arts in prison are marginalised. I propose that artistic projects, which focus on aesthetic, as opposed to rehabilitative objectives, offer the greatest opportunity for those in prison to adopt an identity beyond the restrictive narrative identity of prisoner.
    My original contribution to knowledge is to introduce the concepts of 'restrictive narrative identity' and 'performing reform' as a means of understanding fundamental issues that impact upon arts practice in prison. I also propose that in adopting a creative role such as actor or writer the person in prison may be able to create a broader sense of narrative identity beyond the role of prisoner.
    The term 'restrictive narrative identity' provides a means for understanding how the institution of prison, its practices, including the discourse of rehabilitation, help create and sustain a limited identity for those imprisoned. I employ the term prisoner to indicate an ideologically constituted identity that the institution of prison employs but which is also manifest in narratives about prisoners in wider society, within tabloid media reports, for example. I argue that there is a need to address the specter of prisoner in addressing the issue of efficacy in relation to the arts in prison.
    The term „performing reform‟ denotes the particular cultural context in which questions over the efficacy of the arts in prison are posed, a context in which the setting and achievement of targets in order to measure
    performance is ubiquitous. It is also used to signify the imperative placed upon prisoners to participate in offender management programmes, which include role-play and presentations to demonstrate reformed behavior.
    Employing an autoethnographic method, which draws upon my experience as a Writer in Residence in prison, I propose that arts projects, which focus on aesthetic as opposed to rehabilitative objectives, offer respite from the restrictive narrative identity of prisoner. Conversely, when the prime purpose of the arts in prison is to rehabilitate then arts practice can itself become a contributing factor to the restrictive narrative identity of prisoner.
    Date of AwardNov 2013
    Original languageEnglish


    • Arts in prisons

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