The life-changing effect of prison arts programmes

Claudia Massie

Claudia Massie on the rehabilitative value of allowing offenders to create

25 September 2018 12:25

Twelve Months Hard Labour (January) is a wandering, organic drawing that sprawls across the paper like a cell culture proliferating on a petri dish. It is a subtle piece of work that absorbs the viewer, inviting minute exploration. It was displayed at this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, where it hung alongside work by David Hockney and Tracey Emin, but in the delicate patterns of this particular drawing lies an artistic story more curious than most.

The RA Summer Exhibition has been running continuously for two-hundred-and-fifty years and every British artist of note, from Constable and Turner to Freud and Hirst, has displayed their work there. It’s a competitive endeavour, with the thirteen-hundred or so works on show selected from several thousand entries. Having a piece included is a significant achievement for any artist. But when the work in question was produced in a prison, by an artist serving a life sentence, that achievement becomes all the more remarkable.

In some regards, prison is an obvious crucible for art. Inmates have a lot of time on their hands, after all, and ample opportunity for self-examination, reflection and thought. Boredom can be a powerful stimulus and art can be an effective and rewarding way to fill those empty hours. Art classes, and art therapy sessions, are provided in most prisons by both the prison curriculum, which works towards qualifications, and outside agencies. Take up is high, and the impact can be genuinely life changing.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that engagement in arts programmes within prison has a direct and quantifiable relation to better mental health, lower tension levels, increased compliance and a reduced likelihood of re-offending. Findings compiled by the American organisation Rehabilitation Through Arts found specifically that the longer prisoners spend in an arts programme, the fewer violations they commit and the better they score on ‘positive coping’ tests.

Twelve Months Hard Labour (January)

Paul Grady

Similar initiatives in Britain reach the same conclusions: art enables offenders to address their generally very complex problems in positive, non-violent ways that result in enhanced social relationships, redefined self-esteem and better long term opportunities for both the prisoners themselves and, by extension, society in general. Whether defined by re-offending rates, psychometric testing, mental health, academic qualifications or anecdotal stories, the conclusion appears to be that exposure to creative activity does improve well being and lead to more positive outcomes.

When Paul Grady made the Twelve Months Hard Labour (January) drawing, he was facing a life sentence. Looking at years of confinement, and the challenge of processing the events that had led him there, he joined the art class offered by the prison education system and found it immediately therapeutic. He explains, ‘In prison, you have a chance to reflect and you have to take it. Art became for me a crutch, a coping mechanism.’

Gradually that crutch evolved to become something more dynamic and purposeful for Grady. His focus intensified and he began to see art not only as an important therapeutic tool that could help him come to terms with his past, but also an opportunity to redefine who he was and what he could achieve in the future.

Twelve Months Hard Labour (January) was part of a year-long project undertaken during his incarceration. On the first of every month, he drew the beginnings of an abstract pattern on a sheet of paper before expanding it daily, allowing the drawing to define its own course throughout the month. The project required discipline and dedication, and the result was twelve versions of these complex, amorphous scrawls.

Postcards from Prison

Erika Flowers

Since then, Grady has moved on, both in his art and life. After a period in an open prison, he was released and is now an art school graduate beginning an MA. He also runs workshops and hopes to one day return to prison and use his experience to help others rehabilitate themselves. He understands how unusual his trajectory has been and does not attempt to hide his past, accepting that, without prison, the likelihood of him now working as an artist and studying for a Masters degree would be slim.

In many ways, Grady’s redemptive story is a textbook example of what can be achieved with sufficient creative opportunities and support. Nevertheless, art delivery is mixed across the prison estate, with emphasis and funding channeled towards literacy and numeracy programmes, as well as more obvious vocational training.

Going some way to fill the gaps are organisations such as the Prisoners’ Education Trust, who work with individual offenders to provide funding for those wishing to study beyond the limitations of the prison curriculum. Prisoners can apply to PET for support to buy materials or pursue qualifications that would otherwise be impossible, particularly when they aim to study beyond the basic levels offered by the prison curriculum. Requests for art materials to enable in-cell activity are extremely common, with mental health needs frequently cited as a driving force behind the requests. With some prisoners spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells, art can offer an essential emotional and creative outlet.

Central to the promotion of prison art is the Koestler Trust, an organisation that exhibits and rewards creative work made by offenders, celebrating everything from needlework and watercolour, to matchstick sculpture and photography. The latest Koestler exhibition, curated by family members of prisoners, is on display at the Royal Festival Hall until the fourth of November.

Postcards from Prison by Erika Flowers

External validation, such as work being displayed and remarked upon outwith the prison environment, is of great importance to artist-offenders. Desistance, the movement away from re-offending, is heavily predicated upon a shift in self-perception and it is crucial that prisoners have the opportunity to re-define their own identities. Academics refer to this as the establishment of a ‘replacement self’ and consider it an essential step in the rehabilitation process, and a precursor to the eventual reassessment of offenders by others.

Being a capable artist also brings a certain degree of kudos within the prison environment and this too can influence the evolution of self-perception and self-worth. Artwork is often used as a currency in prison, with artists sought out by fellow inmates to produce specific pictures. A prisoner might ask someone from the art class to produce a drawing of his children, for example, in exchange for cigarettes or extras from the canteen. This is a significant transaction in an environment where everyone is trying to earn a little and gain some respect.

‘Art in prison is vital,’ says Erika Flowers, an artist-offender who experienced the art provision at both HMP Holloway and HMP Send, ‘and the art class is the least disruptive place in there.’ She describes it as an oasis of sorts within the prison environment, where the working process is distinguished by being enjoyable and the achievements often surprising and empowering. Furthermore, the collaborative nature of the art class means that prisoners are obliged to share resources and work in groups, leading to unexpected levels of co-operation, both with their peers and with the teacher or artist delivering the classes.

Offenders learn practical skills in these classes, such as sewing, pottery or painting, and they may also experience the almost meditative benefits of creative endeavour. Professional artists speak of this too; how being creative can be both transporting and potentially transformative. Being temporarily removed from other issues while focusing on a painting, or while working with ceramics, can have a remarkably powerful impact on mental well-being and invariably encourages some reflective processing. As Picasso said, ‘art washes away from the soul the dust of every day life’.

Postcards from Prison by Erika Flowers

Flowers recorded the prison quotidian from her cell in a series of narrative cartoons drawn on postcards. Like Grady, she worked consistently on these images, a fixed routine that offered a focused outlet for emotion and a way to rationalise her situation. Although often frustrated by the inconsistency of art provision, she did, with the help of PET and the encouragement of both the Koestler Trust and Watts Gallery, succeed in working up to a degree-level distance-learning course while inside. Erika is now out of prison and trying to forge a career as a freelance illustrator on her own, a challenging task even without an overhanging conviction.

It is unfortunate that, although offenders may be encouraged to pursue art within prison, there are few systems in place to help them establish careers in the creative sector once they leave. There are initiatives that channel offenders into employment in other areas and workplaces, such as the cobblers Timpsons, that actively engage with the prison estate, but the avenues for entry into the arts are limited and a conviction often remains an insurmountable stigma, even in traditionally liberal fields.

Prison arts programmes and the Koestler Trust can only go so far to complete the reintegration of offenders. Ultimately, the most influential factor in their rehabilitation may lie with us and whether we, as a society, have the capacity to make room for them. Art can reshape all our expectations. The question, as Henry David Thoreau pointed out, ‘is not what you look at, but what you see.’

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