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NewsMay 21, 2021

Instilling hope, healing and dignity

Zandra Matthews ’21 brings her education, diverse blend of holistic wellness to Boston jails

Zandra Matthews amid flowers

One rarely teaches yoga in dress pants, but when your students are men incarcerated in a Boston lockup, some adjustments are necessary.

Zandra Matthews, 24, who has earned a bachelor’s degree in Expressive Arts Therapy enrolled through the Lesley Center for the Adult Learner, spent much of the last year teaching meditation, dance movement therapy, and other expressive arts modalities to two dozen or more Suffolk County Jail inmates ages 18 to “about 60,” whom she calls “brothers.” In addition to various artistic techniques, Matthews imparts a measure of validation and hope to people whose freedom is elusive, whose privacy is scant, but whose creativity is boundless.

“They finally have the support they never were given,” Matthews says, explaining that her empathy for the men is born of some of her family members’ experiences with the criminal justice system and her own near miss.

“I was heading down a similar path as a kid, and I have family that also have been involved in the system,” says Matthews, a sexual-abuse survivor who hails from Ansonia, Connecticut, but commuted to Lesley from the Metrowest Massachusetts city of Framingham. She arranged her own field placement at the jail and, for a short time, was able to teach there in person, though the pandemic shifted her practice to Zoom.

Collaborative art project between Zandra Matthews and Boston inmates
This collective piece was created from students’ individual renderings of “their own expression and release of their shadow emotion.” Matthews adds, “This is by far one of my favorite experiences with the men.”

“I’m hoping to go back in person in the next couple of months or so,” she says, adding that she is now collaborating with the Suffolk County House of Correction on Zoom for the Suffolk County Sheriff Department’s new art exhibition, which has provided her with female students, also.

Regardless of where she teaches from, Matthews sees her role with her incarcerated students as providing “a safe, creative learning space for them to step into a zone where they can be seen and heard as a whole human.”

She enjoys teaching both men and women, but the male prisoners occasionally present challenges to a young female teacher. She explains that they often come to the process initially with their guard up, informed by potential threats from other inmates, the continuous surveillance they’re under and the pervasive power inequities between themselves and corrections officers.

“One of the things I try to tackle is the toxic masculinity,” Matthews says, adding that older students are often helpful in setting a productive and therapeutic tone and being willing to make themselves vulnerable during an exercise or artmaking project. “I think the ones that are older are at a point where they want the change.”

Matthews also invites participation by always using music of varying genres—hip-hop, Latin, rock—often chosen by the students themselves, giving them a means of escape (they are rarely allowed to listen to music of their own choosing) and a way to get the creative juices flowing.

“I was actually really surprised at how willing my first group of students were to open up to me and the expressive arts process,” Matthews says. “They really appreciated the overall atmosphere and opportunity to step into a space where they can safely express themselves, which is not always easy for multiple reasons.”

And Matthews is clearly having an impact already, as the jail superintendent has voiced his support for the expressive arts therapy and yoga programs she runs. The corrections officers are even “cautiously curious” about her therapeutic disciplines, which are novel in the county jail setting. Matthews credits people such as Diana Santil, the jail’s education department director, for making the programs successful.

student zandra matthews standing in front of a door wearing a graduation cap and gown
Zandra Matthews

One of those new programs is Beloved Arts Exhibition: Expression As A Praxis of Liberation, which Matthews worked on with the women and men to create 18 canvases on the theme “Liberation, Love and Community,” and what that means for them. The inmates’ art will be viewable online in a gallery format.      

In addition, some of the students who have been released from jail are interested in keeping up with Matthews’s classes.

“The benefits and theory of expressive arts need to be understood more in these types of institutions, but the change is here, it’s happening right now,” Matthews says.

Her own next steps include pursuing a dual master’s degree in social work and human sexuality counseling from Pennsylvania’s Widener University. She aims to become a sex therapist and intends to build on her diverse portfolio of holistic wellness services offered through her business Dancing Winds of Color. Matthews credits Lesley with giving her the tools and opportunities to direct her present work and her future aspirations.

“Lesley has shaped me in so many ways, through education, support of teachers and peers, but the experience itself is one that cannot be said with words,” Matthews says. “But you will see how Lesley has shaped me when I carry on my work with expressive arts and holistic wellness care while integrating the next phase in my chapter.”