Image: HM Prison Dovegate/Koestler Trust

The importance of art in prisons

To be at the University of Warwick, surrounded by friends and often with a strong support network, it can be easy to forget that not everyone has the opportunities we do. We don’t talk enough about prisons and offenders. We forget that while we were barely starting our GCSEs, some people were beginning a life of repeat offending because of a lack of support and rehabilitation programmes. Many of these men and women have limited education because time spent in and out of jail disrupts their studies. They fall victim to offending again and again because they stop feeling like they are a part of society. The system has failed them: why should they care about the law?

It is easy to disregard the value of the arts, much like we disregard rehabilitation, because they don’t directly contribute to curing cancer or developing robotics. We don’t think about offenders because we aren’t offenders – we don’t understand what it is like to be them. But some charities are beginning to see the value of the arts within prisons. They understand that offending is not always a choice in the minds of the offenders and that incarceration doesn’t always prevent crime.

It is easy to disregard the value of the arts, much like we disregard rehabilitation, because they don’t directly contribute to curing cancer or developing robotics

For many young male offenders, their time in prison begins around the age of 15 and they will spend the majority of their life trapped in a vicious cycle that sees them in and out of prison. To radically change their lives on being released is increasingly difficult, with cuts to rehabilitation programmes, a lack of jobs for ex-offenders, and potential homelessness upon leaving prison. More common, unfortunately, is death, either through gang violence, drugs or simply the dangers of rough sleeping.

Many prisons with their Victorian architecture loosely embody Jeremy Bentham’s (the 18th century English philosopher) idea of the panopticon – a system of social control in which a single watchman can observe the inmates without being seen. The bleak and colourless nature of many prisons, paired with high levels of acoustic reverberation, makes prison life tedious and yet at the same time terrifying and stressful. On top of that, prisons are understaffed, overcrowded, subject to huge cuts, and home to an abundance of drugs such as spice and mamba, thus creating a dangerous environment for inmates. Mental health issues also present a huge problem within prisons, especially with cuts leaving fewer staff able to help. Without a shadow of a doubt, this has a major knock-on effect on the incredibly high rates of self-harm and suicide within prisons – suicides are five times more likely in prison than among the general population.

Prisons are understaffed, overcrowded, subject to huge cuts, and home to an abundance of drugs such as spice and mamba, thus creating a dangerous environment for inmates

Often people think of the arts as lacking in substance or importance, and so push them aside. But they are crucial to prison rehabilitation programmes which help repeat offenders to break their behaviour patterns. The prison environment is inherently controlled and restrictive, it focuses on routine and, in plain terms, it’s incredibly boring. But the arts cover a broad spectrum of activities from drama to painting to music. People respond to them in different ways, which is why it is so important that the broad scope of arts in prisons has grown over the last 30 years. The arts offer a chance for offenders to do something with their time and focus their energy on something enjoyable and relaxing. When you’re sitting in a controlled environment for days on end, the opportunity to be creative and produce something different is valuable.

Saul Hewish has worked with offenders through the medium of drama for 31 years. He currently teaches a module at the University of Warwick in which students collaborate with people in prison on theatre pieces. “In terms of drama or more group-based activities, what’s important is that people are working with others. Something that has come up a lot over the years is that through doing this art form, people are reminded that they’re human beings.” Hewish’s suggestion that offenders can forget they’re even human clearly demonstrates a problem with our prison system. It surely cannot be a coincidence that offenders can feel dehumanised within a prison environment and then go on to re-offend. If these offenders view themselves in this way, how can they be expected to change their lives in a positive manner, when they do not see themselves as people with a positive part to play in society? Hewish reminds us that drama is not run in prisons to encourage people to become actors, but rather to offer them a process through which they can learn to be different.

Something that has come up a lot over the years is that through doing this art form, people are reminded that they’re human beings

Saul Hewish

This use of the arts to challenge self-perception and prevent repeat offence can be explored through the Desistance Theory. Secondary Desistance is described as a shift in identity in how the ex-offender labels themselves. It is likely that once an offender starts seeing themselves as someone within society, they will begin to stop offending and will follow the rules and laws of that society. The arts can help offenders to evaluate who they are and what is important to them. By working on a project, be it drama or artwork, offenders are given the opportunity to express themselves and achieve recognition. Through their work, they can take pride in something prosocial that has value – through art, they experience a pride that is not criminal pride. Artwork offers offenders the chance to understand themselves and their emotions, and to view themselves in a different light. It is this shift in identity which is key for preventing people from reoffending, especially if, as is the case with many prisoners, they are now in their thirties or forties and have been in and out of prison since a young age. For further context, the percentage of children and young people that go on to re-offend is 42.2% and has increased by four percent over the past ten years. It would be logical to argue that the arts are needed now more than ever before, to support and encourage people often from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Koestler Trust is one of several charities that work with offenders through the arts. It has been “awarding, exhibiting and selling artworks by offenders, secure patients and detainees for over 50 years.” The annual exhibit of artwork is in partnership with London’s Southbank Centre and we were lucky enough to visit it this year. The experience was overwhelming. To think that people had created this work behind bars was a strange feeling. Yet much of the work shared common ideas: not being able to use the telephone and call their loved ones, feeling isolated and alone, missing their children. Often, we do not think about offenders or when we do, we think of them in one big lump: as prisoners. And yet, this exhibition made you view each artist as an individual, allowing you to see their emotions through sculpture, paint, music and spoken word. Since 2007, the Trust has had a Mentoring Program which supports ex-offenders “in continuing their artistic engagement by matching them with a specially trained arts mentor.” This provision says a lot about the program: for ex-offenders to want to continue with art beyond prison must be a sign that the charity is doing something right.

Artwork offers offenders the chance to understand themselves and their emotions, and to view themselves in a different light

On the website is a quote from one Koestler award winner: “The Koestler Award has built so much self-esteem in prisoners that I believe it is the most effective rehabilitation tool in the prison system today.” This is a testament to the value of art within the prison systems. Unfortunately, whilst the arts are finally beginning to be seen for the value they offer, the prison system must catch up to help create a life-changing difference. The arts can only work in a system willing to utilise them.

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