Opinion: The Creative Arts and Rehabilitation

Over the summer we published the first edition of The Beauty’s Inside, a unique and collaborative publication between LCF and HMP Send. The magazine brought together eleven serving women offenders and eleven students from across our School of Media and Communication who, over the course of ten weekly workshops held at the women’s prison last term, worked together to produce content inspired by, and relevant for, the women prisoner readership.
The magazine, printed by prisoners at HMP Maidstone’s Printshop, was distributed to all the women at HMP Send last month and forms part of our wider commitment to the rehabilitation of women offenders, following two womenswear design projects, also undertaken at HMP Send, over the two previous academic years.

Wasted! HMP Channings Wood, James Wood Silver Award for Oil or Acrylics
These projects have demonstrated how the arts offer an effective way to engage offenders who have felt alienated from mainstream, qualification-led, education and how fashion education in particular can be an especially strong transforming force due to its unique appeal which crosses social boundaries and offers a greater opportunity for prisoners to interact with each other and in so doing learn important social skills. Women in prison are, generally, especially vulnerable and tend to suffer from very low self-esteem. Comprising just 6% of all UK prisoners, these women are living in an understandably male dominated prison service where their needs are often overlooked. Fashion education has a unique role to play in helping these women. Fashion can help these women re-create who they are, who they want to become and, in so doing, build much needed self-confidence so they can see an alternative to crime.
The arts therefore play an important role within the prison experience, through developing new vocational and social skills, whilst also realising existing capabilities and talents. We, as a society, should therefore be encouraging more of this interaction.
The rising prison population demonstrates how crime has become a serious problem in communities and we need to play a role in preventing re-offending in order to move towards ‘better lives’ for society at large. If we are releasing over 80,000 prisoners back into the community each year, it is crucial that these offenders learn to channel their creativity in a constructive way.

Trapped in a Merry Go Round, HMP Littlehey, Dan Snow Silver Award for Pottery or Sculpture
In the year that both HMP Send and the Koestler prison art award scheme celebrate their fiftieth anniversaries we are poignantly reminded about how far we, as a society, have come in terms of the way we oversee our prison population. Fifty years ago, prison was a very harsh environment, where youngsters in particular were given short, sharp, shock treatment – a situation which one of our international students (a US citizen who took part in our magazine project) felt was more closely aligned with the state of today’s prisons in his home country.
It is the backdrop of the prison environment fifty years ago that makes Arthur Koestler’s achievement all the more remarkable. His experience of political imprisonment in the Spanish Civil War and of campaigning against the death sentence in Britain, made him realise that:

“Being in prison leaves its imprint on you for the rest of your life…. This trauma can turn you into a neurotic, but it can also act as a stimulant with positive effects. The prisoner’s worst enemy is boredom, depression, the slow death of thought.”

Koestler’s goal was therefore to make the prisoner’s life more bearable; to help him acquire something that would aid him inmaking a new start when he left prison behind, and perhaps “to discover the hidden talents within himself”. This ambition led him to establish the eponymous annual prize for the best artistic work produced by prisoners, which is now the UK’s best known prison arts charity. This now receives over 7,000 entries each year, offering offenders the opportunity to take part in the arts and to work towards an achievement that will transform their lives. Furthermore their national exhibition, which opensthis week in the Royal Festival Hall, attracts some 14,000 visitors, showcasing to the public the talent and potential of offenders and people in secure settings.
Projects such as ours and that of the Koestler Trust offer offenders a rare opportunity to be externally recognised for their work. On a micro-scale I have seen first-hand how beneficial this can be. Our magazine project introduced us to talented artists and writers who until then had viewed their respective skills as a means to prevent boredom or “make my letters home interesting”.
In their own words, however, external recognition has

“changed my life. I really mean it. I can actually see a way forward now.” Another inmate said “I never realised until this project that people actually think it’s good writing. It’s given me so much confidence. And if you’ve got confidence, you can fly.”

However with ever rising prison populations, we must not be complacent. Re-offending rates demonstrate that something clearly isn’t working with the current system and so more must be done. And at a time when budgets are so regularly cut, yet a prisoner place costs up to £50,000, surely investment in prison education and the arts, in particular, is a low cost, but extremely valuable, expense?
The 2012 Koestler Trust exhibition, curated by Sarah Lucas, is entitled “Free” and opens on 20th September, running until 25th November at the Southbank Centre, London.