Art Therapy Project In Cook Islands Prison Changing Inmate’s Lives

Non-profit Te Mana Ou works at rehabilitating wayward youth

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, July 7, 2016) – Most of the inmates weren’t interested when they first heard about the programme, about the artist who would be coming to the prison to run therapy sessions twice a week.

Seven signed up. One was told to; the wardens knew he had been into tattoo art before he ended up inside. Another volunteered because he figured it would beat working the taro patch.

“Didn’t really know anything about therapy,” he says now, sitting on a plastic chair beneath the mango tree, eyes trained on the cigarette he’s rolling. But what he does know, two months after the first session, is the programme changed his life, in ways he feels but can’t yet fully understand.

“Something us boys needed,” he says, passing both the packet of tobacco and the conversation to his right, to the one they call Princess, who earned the nickname because he loves his prison family and has no problem showing it.

“We seemed to pick the wrong side and that got us to a place like this, where we have nothing but our minds,” says the one they call Princess, who’s been inside for two years and three months. “We do believe that we have talents but we been putting it on nothing. Until we met Nan, and things changed.”

Nan is Nanette Lelaulu, a New Zealand-born artist of Samoan heritage who has been living and painting in the Cook Islands since 2012. Trained in arts therapy, she became interested in working with inmates when she heard about a former student, a 17-year-old she taught to paint, going inside.

Last year, she and Marie Francis co-founded an organisation called Te Mana Ou, a non-profit focused on rehabilitating wayward youth, and applied for a grant from the Social Impact Fund. Their application was successful and Lelaulu began doing sessions at Arorangi Prison in April, teaching a group of boys between the ages of 17 and 28 to draw, paint, and feel.

In the early sessions, she would name an emotion and the inmates would have to draw it.

“I think it was a shock,” Lelaulu says. “Like, woah, what? You want me to draw a feeling? Feelings are really interesting things. Most people don’t know how they feel.”

Over the next weeks, they drew people, self-portraits. They drew safe places (one inmate drew a tree) and obstacles in the way of getting there (he drew his mind). They drew the way they see themselves, the way they think others see them. They drew their archetypes, their basic personalities and motivations as defined by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung who theorised that each of us fits one (or some) of 12 categories.

“It was all to bring out things in our lives that we had hidden or tucked away,” says the inmate who does tattoos, “to make it visible to us so we know where we are and how we can move forward.”

“Feels good, ay, this big as weight dumped on paper and then you can start again,” says another, who has eight more months to serve. “Builds up some more, just do it again.”

The inmates’ final project was a mural they designed and painted, a striking image of two dragons beneath an angel wearing tattoos and ascending into the clouds. The dragons represent good and bad; the black background represents fear; the angel, Jesus Christ; the tattoos, Cook Islands tradition. Left of the dragons is a grey kikau hut that represents Rock College – prison, a place that for these inmates became a haven of self-reflection.

Last Thursday, a broad cross-section of the community – politicians, businesspeople, wardens, public servants – gathered beneath the mango tree in front of the prison to celebrate the programme’s completion and its output, a mural measuring 12 by 24 metres. The inmates were dressed for the occasion, with pressed white shirts and gel in their hair; there was singing in Maori and a kaikai courtesy of Pacific Resort.

“The motivation for everybody to be involved in this programme was basically faith,” Marie Francis told the crowd.

“When we started we had this vision and this hope for something bigger than ourselves… It took a lot of faith. Faith of the individuals that participated in the programme… Faith of the prison staff who let us into this space… Faith of the funders and people who supported us, who didn’t really know what we were doing.”

On Thursday, seeing the mural, hearing the speeches and the songs, those supporters understood. They expressed gratitude to Francis and Lelaulu for making an impact. Minister of Justice Nandi Glassie called the therapy and mural “forms of empowerment.”

“These are our children,” said Secretary of Justice Tingika Elikana.

“As a community we are all responsible for their falling through the gaps, so we need to take action, and I am grateful to Te Mana Ou for taking the initiative in this area.”

There are other programmes underway at the prison: people go there to teach literacy and numeracy; ukulele crafting; prayer. Lelaulu hopes Te Mana Ou’s pilot project will pave the way for more rehabilitation programmes aimed at giving inmates the opportunities, confidence, and hope they need to get out and stay out.

Prison superintendent Henry Heather says his staff will be as supportive of any project as they have been of Lelaulu’s work, “as long as it gives the inmates the opportunity to learn that life is possible, that all you need to do is put your heart into it.”

Lelaulu deflected praise at every turn, asking that the attention go to the inmates, because the project has always been about them.

“I’m quite emotional about it all coming to an end,” she says. “They’ve changed my life, too.”

Note: Support from CITC, the Social Impact Fund, and Pacific Resort made this project possible.   

Cook Islands News
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