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June 2011 – Arts in prison

Speakers: Tim Robertson, Chair of the Arts Alliance and Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust, and two former prisoners, Francesca and John, talking about how the arts have impacted upon their lives.

Lord Ramsbotham welcomed everyone, in his capacity as Vice Chair of the Penal Affairs Group, to a joint meeting with the Arts and Heritage Group, whose Chairman, Lord Crathorne, was sitting next to him. There had been a suggestion that the issue of arts work with offenders deserved an All Party Group of its own. However it seemed more sensible if these two groups came together to share experiences. He hoped this was something that could be repeated.

The Arts and Heritage Group would be invited to visit the annual Koestler Awards Exhibition on the South Bank. The exhibition was traditionally curated by different groups, and this year it was to be curated by the Magistrates’ Association in celebration of the 650th anniversary year of the first Justices of the Peace. It would be interesting to see what art the magistrates had chosen, to meet some of them, and some of the artists.

It was interesting that this meeting took place on the day of the publication of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, in the context of what Kenneth Clarke had called the ‘rehabilitation revolution.’ The purpose of the evening’s meeting was to hear from Tim Robertson, and his colleagues. Tim was Chief Executive of the Koestler Awards Trust, and Chair of the Arts Alliance, a confederation of all the organisations bringing the arts to offenders, to represent collectively to government what they did, and to act as a conduit to take government policy back to the organisations The Government had created the Arts Forum, representatives of all the ministries involved with the arts, the Arts Council, and funders, and the prison and probation services. There was a great deal of dialogue to ensure that the issue was brought before government, and not just left to take its chance. He then welcomed and introduced the first speaker.

Tim Robertson began: ‘Thank you very much. Lord Ramsbotham gave me my job at the Trust and then promptly left and went to join the House of Lords. I hope that was because he thought it was in good hands…. It is very good to be here. It is probably strange for some of you who come from a prisons and penal affairs point of view to be looking at the world of the arts, and for those of you who come from an arts and heritage point of view to be looking at prisons. Those of us who inhabit those two worlds will have found that there is great creativity in prisons and amongst offenders, and that strangely enough in the arts there are also prisons everywhere: containments and structures of various kinds which both enclose and often strangely stimulate the best in creativity, and perhaps the best in humanity in all of us. All I am going to do today is to briefly set out a little bit of context. Then I have sitting alongside me two ex-prisoners who have had involvement in the arts. The arts have played a big role in their resettlement. You will hear from them, and the bulk of the time we will leave for your questions and discussion.

So just to set out the facts: where do offenders take part in the arts? All prisons have education departments. Most of those have visual art classes, and usually creative writing classes, sometime music workshops as well, working towards formal qualifications, funded through education funding. Some prisons and other criminal justice settings will have art therapies of various kinds, including NHS funded provision where the art is particularly looking at the therapeutic and psychological benefits. Offenders will, like all of us, produce art from their own initiative. In the Koestler Awards the biggest numbers of entries are in paintings, and secondly in poems. Many of those are poems written by offenders in their prison cells, with entry forms signed by a prison officer. And then there are traditional prison craft forms, like soap carving or matchstick modelling.

Then there are many projects that are run in prisons and other criminal justice settings by arts companies, both by national arts companies that go in and do this as part of their outreach programmes, and also by many specialist organisations, specialising in art with offenders. It is those organisations that make up the bulk of the membership of the Arts Alliance. So for example in the field of theatre there is Clean Break women’s theatre Company, one of whose users is here to speak with us tonight. There is Safe Ground, theatre in prisons and probation, Geese Theatre Company, and many more. In creative writing there is the Writers in Prison Network, which sends writers into prisons on three year residencies. There is dance, of which the biggest provider is Dance United, which runs a remarkable academy with young offenders which has had extraordinary results. In music there is Good Vibrations, which runs Balinese gamelan projects in prisons, there is the Irene Taylor Trust, and Changing Tunes, and many others. In the visual arts, both the National Gallery and the British Museum, and many local museums and galleries have run projects in criminal justice settings.

The Koestler Trust is a bit of an overview organisation. Our awards stimulate and motivate offenders to take part in the arts. We get about 6,000 entries a year and we then try to get that work out and seen by the public through our exhibitions, in London, and also in Liverpool, where our last exhibition was opened by Lord Dear, and also in Edinburgh, where our exhibition has twice been opened by Veronica Linklater – good to see them both here.

There are two main rationales for doing arts with offenders. One of those is a social benefit model, about reducing reoffending, about the benefits of arts for offenders. The other is best described as a human rights model. Just to come to the social benefits model first, unquestionably participation in the arts has benefits for offenders in terms of raising their self-awareness, their self-esteem, their knowledge and skills. In many ways, as many of you who have tried to structure the rhyming pattern of a sonnet or to get your colours right for water colour will know, the arts take hard work and discipline. They are often closer to old fashioned punishment view of criminal justice than many people will think. They offer hope and a positive future for offenders, and a role in reducing reoffending. The Arts Alliance has done a collation of the research on this, which you are welcome to take away with you. For example the reoffending rate for the young people who have taken part in Dance United Academy is 33% below the national average, the year after they have left the academy. As for Changing Tunes, which runs music projects in various prisons in the south-west of England particularly, the reconviction rate for those who have graduated from their projects is 74% below the national average.

The human rights model looks at the arts rather differently. It says ‘we don’t mind what the benefits are. They may be difficult to prove anyway. It is a right for everyone to take part in the arts and in creativity’. And in a way the rehabilitation of offenders depends not just on them changing as individuals but also on us changing, on social and cultural attitudes to offenders changing. They can reform themselves and have all the best skills and all the correct attitudes that we might want them to have, but if society does not make its educational, employment, community, family and other opportunities available to them, because it caricatures them as monsters, as some sections of our media would do, then they can’t rehabilitate. So there is an issue about how we change the view of who offenders are.

Many organisations like Clean Break and Pimlico Opera, who perform work with offenders, help in that role. Southbank Centre over at the Royal Festival Hall, who are partners with us in the Koestler Trust, gets the art of offenders seen every year in a national exhibition and programme of events which is attracting 15,000 visitors a year. The visitors book has page after page of people writing ‘I had no idea that prisoners had this level of skill, and I am terribly moved by their stories’. The arts have a role in making human beings, rather than caricatures, of offenders.

Just to whizz through a few issues. Sorry to be predictable, but funding is a big issue for all of us in these difficult times. We are nearly all charities, and all depend on a whole range of funding to do our work. We also depend on funding to the prisons. We have sometimes ended up with extraordinary situations where Arts Alliance members have had a fully funded project which they can’t take into a prison because the prison does not have the staff to get the musical instruments in and out and do the security clearance and so on. The policy changes which are at this moment being discussed in one of the Houses here I think, and all the localism, and sentencing changes, will affect our work. We are only just beginning to work out how those will affect us.

We live in a multi-cultural and complex society so diversity and inclusion, and how those are reflected in our work, are challenges for all of us, as is the IT and digital revolution. Prisoners are not allowed access to the internet, which is the driving force for much change in the arts field. There’s an issue there about how we keep them up with that. The research evidence remains a challenge, as I discussed. PR and media perceptions of the work that we do often caricature us as arty types who are a bit naïve about working with prisons. And both within the arts and within criminal justice there is a need for us not to be seen as peripheral but to establish ourselves as central. The arts that are produced by prisoners, and by many other groups on the edge of society are often the some of the most radical, interesting, amazing, imaginative and inspiring things that are happening today. They should not be seen just as little outreach projects, but really should be in the main gallery space and celebrated as a central part of an artistic programme. And vice versa, the arts are often seen as an add-on in prisons and in criminal justice settings, whereas I think we can be one of the central driving forces for change, both in offenders’ lives, and of course so that there are fewer victims, and society becomes safer for all of us.

On my left I have Francesca, a user of Clean Break women’s theatre and education company and next to her is Rebecca Manley, one of the Theatre Education Managers at Clean Break. Then meet John who is a former Koestler award winner and currently on the Koestler mentoring programme, and next to him is his Koestler mentor, Johanna Trentch.

Frankie, could you say how you came to Clean Break?

Francesca: I came to Clean Break after a long journey. I was sentenced to prison ten years ago, and came across the organisation after I was sentenced. I really liked the idea of an environment where women could get involved with the theatrical arts and at the same time share common ground. However after hearing about Clean Break my life took a turn for the worse, due to drug addiction. It has taken me a further nine years to arrive. But I never lost sight of that goal. I left the rehabilitation centre in 2009, moved to London with my daughter to start a new life, and I finally had my assessment at Clean Break. It has been a slow and difficult process to conquer my fears. I knew I wanted a new life and to change. I just needed to feel listened to, and at Clean Break I have been.

Tim Robertson: Can you say what you got out of Clean Break?

Francesca: From Clean Break I have got a life I never knew existed. I’ve been valued and treated with respect, and ultimately not judged. I started with zero confidence, but I knew I was in the right place. Arts and theatre were really important to me. I could express myself in a safe place, and gained skills that will carry me through to change my life. I have completed Performance Level 2, Writing for Theatre, Backstage Theatre, Costume, Dance and Self Development. I am currently on a full time work placement with the National Youth Theatre as Deputy Stage Manager. The production I am working on is specifically for young adults who were out of education, training and employment. This has now become my chosen career path, to work with vulnerable adults in community based theatre projects, and I hope to go on to study Applied Theatre at university. My experience has enabled me to develop a deeper level of empathy and understanding towards others involved in destructive life styles. I want to assist young adults to make positive changes in their lives. Clean Break has allowed me to find my voice. I have spoken to groups of police officers about my story, and now I’m here today. So thank you for this.

Tim Robertson: John, would you say what your involvement on the criminal justice system has been?

John: in 2007 I was sentenced to five years in prison for a series of robberies. I spent two and a half years in prison, but I was lucky enough to make my way to an open prison.

Tim: what was the prison you were in?

John: I started off in Feltham, where I spent nearly eighteen months. The Kings Fund, which is a charity as I’m sure you know, wanted to refurbish the healthcare wing, which was a really dire place, full of violence. They came to me and asked me to paint six paintings for them. As a result they down-graded me to a Category D prisoner, which meant I could then go on to an open prison, which gave me the freedom to work in the community and to study.

Tim: Just explain about these paintings, which went into the new space. What were the paintings of?

John: Four of them were graffiti-style paintings, and two of them were sort of abstract expressionism.

Tim: So you moved from Feltham to a Category D open prison: where was that?

John: That was Hollesley Bay in Suffolk. They asked me to do a further six paintings for the visitors’ room, and then I managed to find my way to Latchmere House in Richmond. Along the way I had been in contact with the London art schools. Once I was at Latchmere House I started a Higher National Certificate in Fine Art at Kensington and Chelsea College which I passed with distinction. I was voted the student of the year for the whole of the borough. And then I got into Central St Martin’s School of Art and Design to pursue a BA with honours in Fine Art, which is what I’m doing now.

Tim: John, if you hadn’t had art, what’s your guess about where you might be now?

John: Well, that time back in Feltham, when I was asked to do these paintings for the healthcare wing, when I saw that art could be a viable option for me as a career path, as an education and to study, that gave me belief, because without that I would have come home to nothing. It worked out really nicely for me because when I did finally get released I still had a couple of months left of my course, which gave me focus, so I went straight into doing art, and from that I went on to doing a degree.

Tim: And were you part of art classes as well while you were in Feltham?

John: I did some art therapy in Feltham, and when I was in Hollesley Bay I was doing community work with Downs Syndrome and autistic adults, and I ran art classes with them.

Tim: And did you enter the Koestler Awards?

John: I did and also I did a lot of poetry and some of that was published. I now write quite a lot of poetry and we have our own event in Bethnal Green, so we’ve been very busy.

Tim: The Koestler mentoring? How was that and how did that come about?

John: That’s really helped. Joanna here knows vast amounts about art. We go to galleries together, and not only does she support me emotionally but she helps me understand certain things that some tutors might not. She’s been a huge help to me.

Tim: And how’s it been at St Martin’s?

John: St Martin’s is a different level of education from the last college I was at. It’s been really good. I’m looking forward to starting next year in the new building, to carrying on, and hopefully doing well and getting a good grade.

Tim: Can I ask both Frankie and John if there is anything you would want to say to Parliament. The whole of Parliament is sitting here before you. They are terribly powerful people. Do you have a short message to them?

John: I’d say, there’s a huge amount of talent in prisons. There are a lot of really talented people that I’ve met, and it’s been a pleasure to meet some of them. I won’t forget them.

Frankie: I would like to say how beneficial Clean Break has been. It’s enabled me to turn my life around, to get my drive and determination back, and to want to change. So many creative people get overlooked when they are stuck in the system.

Tim: I just want to correct one possible misconception here. It’s not the aim of either the Koestler Trust or Clean Break to make all ex-offenders into professional artists or theatre practitioners. Many of our Koestler mentors are doing perfectly ordinary non-arts jobs, but as for most of us they are doing their painting or their poetry as part of what makes them human, what keeps them growing, what keeps them alive. We happen to have two exceptional examples here’.

Lord Ramsbotham asked Tim Robertson to explain where mentors fitted in to the awards scheme.

Tim Robertson began by noting that this year saw a record 6,000+ entries to the Koestler Awards, from prisoners, offenders on probation, and secure psychiatric patients across the UK. These were judged by panels of artists: for example Grayson Perry, the Turner Prize winner, had been judging at their building at Wormwood Scrubs that day. Winners were invited to express an interest in the mentoring scheme. They would then be matched them with one of the volunteer mentors, who were experienced artists, musicians, or writers. The mentors were vetted, trained and supported to work with the award winners for up to a year after release, so that they were standing on their own two feet in the arts. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation had sponsored the pilot of the mentoring programme, and Queen Mary College, London University, was doing a big evaluation of it, with a control group of people being released from prison without mentoring. Results were due in about a year’s time, but the interim report was looking good.

Lord Ramsbotham noted that the Arts Alliance aimed both to get the arts embedded in the syllabus of every prison and every probation area, with the aim of enhancing offenders’ self–esteem, and also to lobby for some stability in contracting arrangements for organisations providing arts activity in these settings, to allow them to invest rather than being at annual risk.

He then thanked the presenters most warmly and opened up the meeting for questions.

Baroness Sharples noted that many years ago she had been involved in a trust which had funded a writer in residence in Lewes Prison. She wondered whether anything was still happening there.

Tim Robertson responded that almost every prison in the country sent entries to the Koestler Awards, and he had certainly been involved in presenting creative writing awards to prisoners at Lewes. They always did well. So he congratulated the questioner for starting that off.

Lord Ramsbotham noted that about five years ago there had been a very moving speech at the Koestler Awards by a journalist called Diesel, who had not been able to read and write when he had entered prison. He had been picked up by a creative writer, won a Koestler Award and then become a journalist.

Lord Fellowes wondered whether the two ex-prisoner speakers had ever gone back into prisons to spread the word.

Francesca said she had not yet done so but that she would like to.

Tim Robertson added that several Arts Alliance organisations facilitated that, though there were sometimes security issues to overcome.

The Earl of Sandwich asked what the constraints might be, in respect of access to prisons for arts organisations.

Tim Robertson responded that access tended to depend on the management team in each prison. Some were wonderful and others were less encouraging. Staff changes posed problems, and sometimes security concerns proved difficult to surmount. However, the Pimlico Opera company, for example, were sometimes given permission to run large scale productions in prisons, open to the public, which could take two months to organise, and those and other prisons were fantastically cooperative.

Lord Judd commented that he was a great admirer of Pimlico Opera. However there was an attitude, perhaps amongst officials rather than ministers, that prisons were not places for fun. Surely that attitude had to be changed, for the task of rehabilitation to be achieved. Did the speaker ever have the chance to sit down with ministers for a strategic discussion about the role of the arts in achieving rehabilitation?

Tim Robertson responded that this was very much what supporters in the House had managed to achieve for the Arts Alliance, through the Arts Forum. That had unblocked some of the issues around security, although many other issues remained unresolved. A joint communication strategy was in the process of being developed, to break down some of those stereotypes, and to make the case for the arts in prisons to the wider world. As regards the question of ‘fun’, his own answer was that offending involved a failure to be fully human, and to take into account the humanity of the victim – and often the offenders themselves were also victims. Whilst of course there had to be safety and security in prisons, being fully human involved being able to laugh.

At this point Lord Corbett joined the meeting, with apologies, and took the chair

Paul Maynard MP wondered whether this work went on in community settings as well as in prison.

Tim Robertson responded that many Arts Alliance members did indeed work in criminal justice settings in the community as well. For example Clean Break offered a fantastic example of community provision.

Baroness Masham noted that in her time as a member of a Board of Visitors she had had the opportunity to see a great deal of prisoners’ art. She agreed that there was a huge amount of talent in prison which should be encouraged.

Baroness Linklater had been wondering whether the Koestler Awards system extended to children and young people in the community who were at risk of offending.

Tim Robertson replied that the Koestler Award scheme certainly received entries from residents of secure children’s homes, and from those involved with Youth Offending Services. They always ensured that those were included in the exhibitions. This year there was a ‘fast track’ for entries from under-18s, to make sure they received feedback within six weeks, no matter when they sent in their work. The Summer Arts Colleges, jointly funded by the Arts Council and the Youth Justice Board, were arts programmes run by a social enterprise called Unitas in 30 or 40 different Youth Offending Services, and these had been a great success. They ran during the summer holidays, involved visual arts, poetry, dance and other performance, and had received glowing evaluations. They had produced excellent work, too, for the Koestler Awards Exhibitions. There was great concern about what would happen to those programmes, now that the Youth Justice Board was to be dismantled, and given the cuts to the Arts Council’s funding.

Baroness Linklater wished she had known about that sooner, as she and others had been fighting to preserve the Youth Justice Board.

Lord Luke wondered whether an exhibition of cushions with which he had been involved a few years ago came under this heading.

Tim Robertson said this would have been run by Fine Cell Work, who were members of the Arts Alliance, and a fantastic example of a social enterprise. They got needlework experts to train prisoners to produce very high quality needlework, which was then sold. This both funded the charity, and gave prisoners a little paid work which enabled them to learn a new skill. It happened in both women’s and men’s prisons. Masculinity, and macho-ism, were such big factors in crime in our culture, and things that broke down such stereotypes were especially valuable.

Lord Ramsbotham asked whether any work had been done to evaluate the success of involvement with the arts in getting people to go on to work, education or training. The government was primarily concerned with reducing reoffending, and the arts could be a means to that end. But it would help if there were some measurement of success to encourage government to do more.

Tim Robertson responded that some Arts Alliance organisations had indeed produced such evaluations from their own users. For example Dance United, Clean Break, Music in Prisons and several others all had statistical evidence about offenders who had gone through their programmes and gone on to further education at a much higher level than might have been expected. But this tended to be piecemeal evidence, rather than a broad research programme across a broad sample.

Lord Ramsbotham asked whether it would be valuable to make that data more widely available.

Tim Robertson agreed strongly that it would, and said that the Arts Alliance was developing an evidence library, and there were copies of the initial draft summary available to the meeting.

Jane Samuels from the British Museum noted that, on the basis of experience of work in Pentonville and Holloway, there had also been problems in evaluating success, in respect of following up ex-prisoners in transition who may not want, or be able, to be easily traced. Her work had involved bringing exhibitions, artefacts and artists into prison, and she had been pleased to be phoned by ex-prisoners wanting to tour the British Museum as a result, however.

Lord Judd found this most encouraging. He remarked also on the power of art to reveal the sadness in prison, which he acknowledged particularly in the context of his wife’s involvement as a prison visitor with lifers, and one of the haunting pictures produced.

Lord Dear agreed strongly. He had gone somewhat reluctantly to his first Koestler Exhibition, but had been immediately seized, and was now a fully paid up fan. His wife was a Koestler mentor. All the work was good, some outstanding, with massive pathos. Those who believed in ‘locking them up and throwing away the key’ should definitely go.

Nathan Dick, from CLINKS, manager of the Arts Alliance said that one of the central questions was how best to explain and articulate the evidence of the impact of the arts in this field. The Government required all criminal justice interventions to produce very clear outcome measures, and was committed to payment by results. But creating the right measures was particularly hard in respect of creativity, personal growth and emotional wellbeing. The exhibition of this work to the public was another kind of outcome again. Creating the right measures was a big challenge.

Baroness Linklater commented that the personal connection between the public and the prisoner created by these activities was very important. She recalled being invited to sing in Perth Prison aged 16. It had been an amazing experience. She knew that this had been crucial to her subsequent involvement in prisons.

Lord Ramsbotham asked Francesca and John whether there had been sufficient resources in prison, in their view, to enable all those who were interested to be involved.

John responded that when he first went into Feltham it was mostly 23-hour bang-up, so he did everything he could do get out of the cell. However many prisoners did not share that attitude. There was also a macho culture. He had gone to art therapy sessions on the mental health wing, and he thought other prisoners had looked down on him as a ‘loon’. Many had been victims themselves and thought themselves unable to make any contribution. So although the organisations were there to help, whether everyone was willing to take advantage of them was another question.

Lord Crathorne asked about John’s first six paintings. How had that come about?

John said that one day his mother had been in the visitors’ centre when he had been having a bad day. She had spoken to a prison visitor who had a knowledge of art, unlike anyone else he knew in the prison. This visitor had come to see him, and talked to him about art, and this had really boosted him. It was then discovered that he had painted graffiti, and this was felt to be appealing to Feltham inmates. That was how it all started.

Francesca responded that she had been in Eastwood Park Prison. She also used to be on 23 hour lock down until she got involved with the Education Department. That had been one of the things she had enjoyed the most. But her journey had been a long one.

Bridget (John’s mother) thanked the Koestler Trust and the Prison Service. Ten years ago she had lost her son. She had got him back again through art.