Imaginary dialogues: Witnessing in prison-based creative arts therapies

Adi Barak, Amy Stebbins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


This qualitative study examines the perspectives of US-American prisoners (N = 21) on art-making and creative arts therapies in prison through the lens of witnessing, that is, the empathic presence of an Other, who attends to the prisoner's artistic testimony to affirm it as valid. Our analysis explores the concept of witnessing through the lens of constructivist, psychodynamic, and social justice perspectives. Our research questions delineate the specific kinds of dialogues into which prisoners wish to enter on the basis of their artistic production. Our results demonstrate that prisoners imagine at least three different kinds of witnesses to their art. We have labeled these: the witnessing crowd, the witnessing self, and the witnessing artist. By envisioning their art as a dialogue with these imaginary respondents, prisoners develop a fantasy of reintegration and societal acceptance. However, restrictions on prisoners’ access to these witnesses along with the demand that they rely on themselves as witnesses to their own art, raise questions about how the actual process of art-making in creative arts therapies might exacerbate the alienation and marginalization experienced by incarcerated persons. Our discussion contextualizes these findings within the broader critical perspective of social justice. Through this perspective we try to draw a nuanced and dialectical picture of the social constructions produced by creative arts therapies in prison.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-60
Number of pages8
JournalArts in Psychotherapy
StatePublished - Nov 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was funded in part by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd


  • Creative arts therapies
  • Prison
  • Social action art therapy
  • Social justice
  • Witness


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