Saunders: Unsung hero helps NC prisoners find beauty in their lives

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 9, 2014 

Here is one of the most important things you need to know about Sue Etheridge – and believe me, you need to know about Sue Etheridge: When I met her at Central Prison a few months ago, the first thing she told me about was a friend of hers who has dedicated her life to helping others.

She effusively and enthusiastically praised the friend’s contributions to various charities.

What Etheridge didn’t mention, though, is that she, too, has dedicated her life to doing the same thing. Nor did she mention that she had been honored by this dude called the Dalai Lama, whom she met.

I had to find that out from someone else.

Using art to enhance

At the prison, where I’d gone to chat with some inmates, Etheridge is the art therapist, which is precisely what it sounds like. She works with patients in the prison’s psychiatric hospital.

“Think about it like this,” she said. “These people are incarcerated, but when I give them art materials, they have freedom on that page. That does wonders for their well-being. Plus, we use art’s aesthetic beauty to enhance the therapeutic beauty of the institution.”

As if anticipating the ridiculous argument of unenlightened law-and-order hardliners that art therapy is merely a costly, coddling diversion – “They don’t need no art” – Etheridge added, “We do it for the simple reason of beauty. People need beauty in their lives.”

You’re darned right, they do.

Keith Acree, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said that more than 90 percent of all state prison inmates will eventually get out. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel better knowing that while they were in the stir, they got to see and appreciate some beauty besides that Players magazine centerfold taped over their bunks – not that that’s not beauty – so maybe they’ll appreciate beauty when they get out.

‘Surprise me every day’

Etheridge invited me to see some of the inmates’ art – “The most fun I can think of having is to meet with you and show some of their work,” she said – but immediately sensed my hesitancy. Lot of darkness, right? I asked. Lot of blood and daggers and violence? Or do they surprise her with what they paint?

“They surprise me every day,” she said. “Inmates are like everybody else. They’re diverse. Some of them will do dark, foreboding, ghostly, scary, violent images, but most of them want beauty in their lives. ... Barry, art therapy is not my job. It’s my identity. It’s who I am. ... I’ve done assessment and treatment of psychiatric patients in prison for more than 24 years.”

It was while working at the federal prison in Butner as an art therapist that Etheridge was nominated to be an Unsung Hero of Compassion by the Dalai Lama Foundation. She received her award in February in San Francisco.

In a profile on the foundation’s website, Etheridge said that while working on her master’s degree, “I had an art professor at school whose advice to us was ‘Work with the people you love.’ I had no idea I would love mentally ill criminals, but I do!”


What, I asked, was it like to meet His Holiness?

“Oh my gosh, it was” – searches several seconds for the right word – “it was surreal. You know the Serenity Prayer, ‘God grant me the serenity...’? I believe God has granted him the serenity,” she said of the Buddhist holy man. “He is a very calming influence. There is an aura about him that is peaceful and meditative. Honestly, my vocabulary fails when I try to describe him, and I have looked in the thesaurus. There is just an aura of well-being that comes over the room when he’s present.”

I’ll bet there are 24 years’ worth of inmates who’ll say the same thing about Etheridge.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or

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