Lazzari, M. M., Amundson, K. A., & Jackson, R. L. (2005). “We are more than jailbirds”: An arts program for incarcerated young women. Affilia: Journal of Women & Social Work, 20(2), 169-185


This qualitative study examines the effects of an arts project on juvenile female offenders who are incarcerated. Thirty-one incarcerated female youth ages eleven to 17 participated in the arts project with a professional artist. They created both individual and collaborative works of art intended to draw public attention to the incarcerated youth through a museum display. The researchers interviewed the youth participants and the teaching artist to assess the effects of the arts project on their self-identity and relationship to others. Researchers found the arts program resulted in improved relationships between and among the young women, the artist in residence, other inmates in the facility, and the larger community.

Key Findings:

  • The researchers found that the program facilitated positive improvements in the relational context of the young women—their relationships to (a) the artist, (b) the other young women in the program, (c) the artwork, (d) their families and communities, and (e) themselves.
  • The young women reported increased empathy, caring, and sense of community with each other. Shared responsibility over artworks and collaborative art making experiences became a gauge for measuring improved relationships.
  • The arts provided a medium for self-expression and exploration and, as a result, an avenue to develop a greater sense of self and connection to others.
  • The role of the teaching artist was central in establishing and maintaining an environment that facilitated student self-discovery and self-reported behavior changes.
  • Violent behavior was reported as reduced during the duration of the arts program by the facility staff.

Significance of the Findings:

The authors point to a gap in the research on gender-specific interventions in the juvenile justice system. The authors indicate that the use of reading and writing poetry and visual art making may be a powerful medium for gender-responsive interventions in education settings in juvenile correctional facilities. Programs for incarcerated young women may be more successful when they are gender responsive and include a strong relational component built through artistic endeavors.


The researchers conducted observations and interviewed 31 juvenile female inmates ages eleven-17. Of the participants who reported their racial and ethnic background, ten were White, 16 Native American, four Black or African American, three Mexican American or Hispanic, two Caribbean, and two Asian. The researchers designed semi-structured interview questions to assess the meaning and value of the arts program to the participants as well as its intended and perceived outcomes. The artist who led the project was also interviewed in-depth before, during, and after the program. The researchers coded all interviews to identify central and supporting themes. Participation in the program ranged from one to 16 sessions.

Limitations of the Research:

Due to the nature of the program, the inmates had differing levels of participation in the program. Additionally, the authors cited difficulty getting in-depth responses from the participants, which was attributed to their guarded demeanor due to challenging life circumstances and limited educational and expressive experiences. The small sample size and lack of longitudinal data was also a limitation. Finally, specific statistics on the reduction of violent behavior in the facility, and the numerical analysis of the interview coding could have strengthened the study.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • What are the long-term effects both inside facilities and upon reentry into the general population of programs like this?
  • How do outcomes vary by gender for arts related education in correctional facilities?
  • How did the frequency of participation in the program correlate to feelings of self-efficacy, and positive relationships to self, others, and the community?
  • What was the specific decrease in violent behavior observed during and after the program?