Colombia: Art behind bars

A group of Colombian artists seek to use the arts as a rehabilitative and therapeutic tool for men and women in prison. Inmates convey their message through the art they create–an apology, a call for reconciliation, or a cry of innocence.

Prison is not a creative place. The conditions endured by the inmates of Bogotá’s prisons have recently been documented in a report commissioned by the Colombian Inspector General’s Office (Procuraduria). The report is based on inspections of the capital’s three prisons – La Picota and La Modelo, the men’s prisons, and Buen Pastor, the women’s prison. In all three, the study documents evidence of overcrowding, lack of hygiene, and absence of care for prison inmates.

Overcrowded prison in Cali, Colombia (AFP/File, Luis Robayo)
Overcrowded prison in Cali, Colombia (AFP/File, Luis Robayo)

Inmates talk about how difficult it is to survive, about aggressive roommates and cramped living conditions. The environment for the most part does not help them grow creatively or emotionally.

Yet, art programs for prisoners are becoming increasingly common and their benefits clearer in Colombia.

For the thousands of Colombians living in the country’s detention facilities, the days are long and space is reduced to “inside” or “outside.” The day-to-day conditions of many of them are difficult; relationships and art are believed to be helping inmates in “the restoration of their own humanity,” experts suggest. 

Generally we would not ask inmates the reasons behind their imprisonment as the objective of the art workshop was to share something new with them without judgement,” Laura Perez, one of the prisoners’ art teachers, told the Baltic Review.

If on the one hand, art allowed inmates’ to be in contact with their inner self, on the other, an exhibition with their works organised at the Galería Santa Fe in Bogotá, delivered a realistic insight into “life behind bars” to outsiders.

IMG_1317“The impact when we first started working with the inmates was very strong. We knew that after the workshop we would go back home while they would stay behind bars. It made me realise the value of freedom” Juan David Orjuela, who carried out a workshop at the women’s prison, told The Baltic Review.

Colombia’s prison authorities, backed by the government, recently declared an emergency over inhumane conditions in its penitentiaries. They acknowledged the need to free a budget to solve the problems in Colombia’s prisons and consequently improve the living conditions of the country’s approximately 117,000 inmates.

Experts believe that participating in the arts while in prison helps inmates develop a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, which are vital for a successful reintegration back into society.

But benefits proved to be mutual; through art, “free citizens” often build strong ties with inmates.

“I have the portrait of a woman prisoner I was working with in my room. She hung mine on the walls of her cell,” Orjuela said.

IMG_1323It is this atypical exchange between free people and prisoners that touched both parties the most. During the workshop, mentors could grasp the nostalgia inherent in the words of women prisoners for instance – who most of the time were also mothers.

“They would often talk about their children and of how much they missed them,” Laura Perez said.

A complex installation of a heart surrounded by bars with intimate phrases written by prisoners is the emblem of how much effort the participants put in the creative process. “Materials such as branches or needles that are very easy for us to get, are actually very difficult for inmates to obtain,” Maria Buenaventura, the coordinator of the program, told The Baltic Review. The mentors set their ethical position before starting the project. “We wanted to make sure that they were treated as artists, not as prisoners,” Buenaventura explained.

The initiative is being carried out by IDARTES in collaboration with the Bogotà Municipality. For more information: Maria Buenaventura-  [email protected]. Facebook. /Gerencia de Artes Plásticas y VisualesTwitter: @GaleriaSantaFe

Bibbi Abruzzini
Bibbi Abruzzini is a foreign correspondent for the BALTIC REVIEW and international news agencies in South Asia. She is Italian, grew up in Brussels and has reported from several countries, including Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Croatia, France, India, Italy, Lebanon, Nepal, Tunisia,Turkey and the US – writing largely about social and development issues.