FSU expands art therapy in prisons program

Florida State University. Photo courtesy: Zarria Hill

Florida State University has recently partnered with the Florida Department of Corrections to provide an art therapy program catered to young inmates who have special needs.

The program has been a triumph, according to FSU. The university and the state recently singed a three-year contract that will double the size of the program.

According to the university, art therapy is can be a passionate outlet for prisoners. It provides them with a feeling of strengthening and permits them to interface with something.

Dave Gussak, a professor at FSU and director of FSU/FDC Art Therapy in Prisons, said the program has helped some inmates to stay positive.

Gussak has been with the university for 20 years. Although the program has been up and running officially since 2019, FSU was in negotiations about 18 to 20 months before that to establish the contract.

Gussak has had his own personal experience working within correctional institutions for about 40 years, since the beginning of 1981. Back in the 2000s Gussak was able to set up a number of different research agendas that examined the effectiveness of art therapy in prison systems.

He, alongside other therapists, gathered strong data over the span of 6-7 years at four different institutions which demonstrated that art therapy was indeed effective in increasing mood, reducing depression, problem solving and socialization.

“In 2018 Jerry Brown, the program manager of education of the Department of Corrections approached me and said he was familiar with some of this research and he thought that art therapy would be effective in overcoming obstacles that get in the way for the youthful offenders in the prison system,” Gussak said. “He asked if I would be interested in establishing a formal program that would allow us to provide art therapists for these environments.”

“Over the next 18 to 20 months, it was a long time, we were able to finally and formally negotiate a contract between Florida State University and Florida Departments of Corrections,” he added.

FSU hired two art therapists to provide services in two prisons each. At that point the university was going into four prisons.

The therapists’ sessions allowed them to help strengthen the inmates’ sense of identity as well as work on mediating factors without removing the COVID mask that would leave them most vulnerable to others.

“Shortly after we got started of course, COVID-19 hit and we were quite proactive,” Gussak said. “We knew that we had to stay in there because now we were dealing with over-isolation. The team met every morning for an hour for the first six months of the pandemic to come up with strategies to figure out ways to continue providing services whether they were virtual, remote, through notebooks or even notes.”

Based on the strengths of the first annual report and the subsequent reports that came after, including a couple of publications, the Florida Department of Corrections saw the value of the partnership and decided it wanted to expand it.

Inmates 16 to 22 years of age can take part in the program. Funding for the program is aided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The program is scheduled to continue to until at least 2024.