How art reaches the parts the prison service cannot

Ray and Violet Donovan, photo ©Mark Johnson -
Ray and Violet Donovan, photo ©Mark Johnson -

‘Art’ in prison constitutes more than just drawing five bar gates on walls, and in fact represents a major force for the rehabilitation of offenders.

The Koestler Trust, a charity, has spent nearly 50 years encouraging inmates’ artistic expression and emphasising to the public the beneficial role of art by holding an annual exhibition of prisoners’ artwork.

Each year thousands of works are submitted to the trust’s offices next to imposing Victorian edifice of HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London by inmates from Britain’s prisons, young offenders’ institutes, asylum removal centres and secure psychiatric units. This year for the first time the offenders’ work has been curated by a seven strong team of members of the public who have been victims of crime, and The Big Issue found that the experience has had a profound impact on both.

Tim Robertson, the Koestler Trust’s chief executive, said that the exhibition sometimes caused raised eyebrows, with reports in the press claiming that celebrating prisoners’ art is “offensive” to victims of crime.

“It’s impossible to summarise what all victims of crime feel,” he replies. “They are all different, but no doubt some will feel very aggrieved and angry about what has happened to them.

“But I was mugged on the tube, and while I want to know they were eventually caught, the last thing I want to know is that prison brutalised them further. I want to hear they are now more sensitive to others, more aware of their actions, not less,” he says.

“Art, which is all about connecting with and communicating with an audience, is the best way of doing that.”

One artist, for example, now works for the trust. Married father-of-three Daniel Hogg spent two years in prison until this year after causing death by dangerous driving. His painting, Emptiness Does Not Exist, came to him after spending hours reading philosophy in his cell. He is now studying art at college.

Hogg believes art also provides a gateway to help inmates move toward improving their education, and so increasing their chances of reoffending. “Many people’s recollections of school might not be happy, so associating adult education with school is not helpful. Art can be a gateway, a great way to break down people’s resistance.”

Clockwise from top left: Diversity of Hope (Sizwe Dladla), Shout to the Top (anon), Winner (Rafal Boguszewski), Emotional Release (anon).
Clockwise from top left: Diversity of Hope (Sizwe Dladla), Shout to the Top (anon), Winner (Rafal Boguszewski), Emotional Release (anon).

Firsttine Pierre, from Croydon, began volunteering for a witness support service after her brother was attacked outside a club at Christmas 1999. He and his cousins had just tossed out a group of men making trouble, but as he turned to go inside one hit him with an iron bar. He was lucky to escape with his life – the blow would probably have killed him were it not for his thick dreadlocks piled up on his head to cushion the blow. He suffers damaged hearing, vision and memory loss.

Witness intimidation meant Firsttine, her brother and his family had to go into hiding. “It was the worst time in my life. I was so angry. I was like, hang ‘em all. It was a big step doing this, but I felt I needed to do it,” she says. “And you know, it has brought so much peace to me.”

“Once I’d seen this I was raring to go,” says Pierre, originally from Dominica, pointing to a tropical scene entitled Everglades, by an anonymous artist from Feltham Young Offenders Institute. “I remember when I was young my dad climbed up a tree like this to get me my first coconut. It reminds me of those days,” she says grinning in reverie, “It’s really makes my smile widen.”

Picking around 150 paintings from over 5,600 was an enormous task. “But it was uplifting,” the 49-year-old says. “I looked at the art for what it was, not the fact that it was made by an offender. And once I’d done that it opened up a lot of doors just looking at it.”

“We’re all victims in a way,” she adds. “I’m a victim of crime, but they’re victims of circumstance. We don’t know the circumstances behind their actions, only the facts.”

And perhaps in some way, she says, without having gone to prison the artists would not have found in themselves the skills that are now on display.

“I can’t believe where this had taken me emotionally, mentally, even physically,” she says. “I had so much hate in me. If this art is what rehabilitation does, then I’m happy to be part of it.”

Her involvement has helped her brother too. “It didn’t hit him what I’d done at first, but he asked me to explain it to him. I told him, the anger is keeping you in prison too,” she says.

Of the men that disabled and nearly killed her brother, she hopes prison has given them time to think about how their life could have been: “It’s not about proving they’re sorry to me, it’s about proving to themselves they are worthy of more to life than a cell and being told when to eat or wash, when to get up or go to sleep.”

Two curators, Ray and Violet Donovan, experienced every parent’s nightmare when in 2001 their sons, Christopher and Phillip, were randomly attacked by a group of teenagers. Christopher, just 18, was beaten and had his head kicked “as if taking a penalty” and after being knocked into the road was hit by a car whose driver said in court she thought he “was a bundle of old clothes”.

He died in hospital from brain injuries suffered during the attack, and one man and two teenagers were sentenced to life for his murder.

Ray and Violet, committed Christians who have forgiven their son’s murderers, now work with restorative justice project Sycamore Tree, which introduces serving criminals to victims of crime.

Ray says: “We come in and tell our story, but a lot of them say: we don’t have any victims, our crimes are victimless. And we tell them about the ripple effect.

“For example, one man says he only burgles warehouses – what about the manager? The company’s insurance premiums going up? What about employees laid off, their families, their children? The effects are much wider than they think.”

Clockwise from top left: The Long Walk Home (anon), The Big Blue Door (Claude Chain), Salvation (Thomas Shanks), Emptiness Does Not Exist (Daniel Hogg).
Clockwise from top left: The Long Walk Home (anon), The Big Blue Door (Claude Chain), Salvation (Thomas Shanks), Emptiness Does Not Exist (Daniel Hogg).

In one of the paintings Ray selected – Salvation, by Thomas Shanks of HMP Dovegate – he perceived something he recognises in prisoners. The pastel drawing shows a figure with his head in his hands at the bottom of a pit, seemingly oblivious or unwilling to grab the rope thrown down for him.

“I see this all the time. People like us come in and tell our stories, and they feel shame, guilt, they feel worthless, like they’re not worthy of forgiveness,” he said.

Some may find it surprising that inmates feel guilt toward their actions. “Oh definitely,” Ray says, gesturing at the painting. “They might put on an act on the landings, but when the cell door closes, they’re like that.”

Art, he said, could engender the most extraordinary changes in prisoners. “I’ve seen the most hardened, violent inmates become model prisoners after time spent with a paintbrush,” he says.

The couple have been in touch with one Christopher’s killers who expressed an interest in meeting, but later backed out. “He wrote to me, saying he’d never forgive himself for what he’d done,” says Ray. “The door’s always open for him to meet us. But I told him if he didn’t forgive himself, he’d never move on at all.”

Although hard statistical research is thin, prison-based art projects that have followed up their outcomes report dramatic results – often between 50 and 90 per cent reduction in reoffending rates – in Britain and the US. Robertson is confident the new government understands the importance of targeted and properly funded rehabilitation in stopping revolving-door offending, quoting prisons minister Crispin Blunt MP, who opened the exhibition by saying there were “two sides” to rehabilitating offenders: “Changing the behaviour of offenders so that they lead law-abiding lives, and helping society accept ex-offenders back into employment, family life, and communities – the opportunities that can help people turn their lives around for good.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, October 2010]


Is it nature or nurture when teenagers kill?

The death of Ralph Millward - after the trial.

The notion that children and teenagers could kill is deeply shocking because it upsets our preconception of the young as innocents, incapable of such brutality.

This has always been a rose-tinted view – as much as when two young New Zealand girls beat their mother to death on a whim in the supposed ‘golden age’ of the 1950s – a tale which inspired the film Heavenly Creatures – than in how 19 teenage boys from British cities were killed in the first half of 2008 alone – the youngest 14, the oldest 19.

When a shocking attack or killing occurs, we convince ourselves our children are not capable of carrying out such violence using fanciful means – rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, violent films and more recently computer games have all been fingered as culprits in turning otherwise ‘nice’ children bad. But it is pointless to blame such media for the actions of a tiny minority when millions consume them regularly without ever developing violent or homicidal urges.

A study in 2005 by the American Sociological Association concluded there were no links between violent video games and homicidal behaviour in children, remarking that homicide arrest rates among children and teenagers fell 77 per cent in the 10 years after the release of computer game Doom in 1993, seen at the time as a touchstone of violent games.

The authors take a further step in pointing out the latent racism that lies behind the suggestion that white boys who kill are driven to do so by external forces. The report stated: “White, middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, and victims of an allegedly dangerous product. African-American boys, apparently, are simply dangerous.” The report’s conclusion that youth violence is better addressed by studying broader problems such as family breakdown, poverty, addiction and education seems crushingly common-sensical by comparison.

The three boys that killed homeless Big Issue vendor Ralph Millward in Bournemouth last year, Jimmy Ayres, 15, Warren Crago and Craig Real, both 17, do not seem to be the mythologised ‘teen killers’ – loners, mentally unstable, or obsessed with death or violence – that have committed even more appalling crimes elswhere, for example the Columbine School and Virginia Tech massacres in the US, and similar shootings in Germany and Canada.

On a sunny day in May, the Rossmore estate in Poole where the boys lived does not seem a threatening or unruly place. It is not an estate in the urban high-rise sense, more a neighbourhood of single and semi-detached houses, none older than thirty or forty years. One group of teenagers know the boys well. A cousin of Crago, 20-year-old Alex, said: “Warren was always a bit of a wild child, he got excluded from school and that, but he had a girlfriend and had just started to settle down. He had hobbies, you know, he liked bikes.

“When I heard from my father that he’d been arrested I said, shut up, you’re joking. We got round to see my aunt and uncle, Warrens’s folks, and they were in a terrible way.” Jimmy Ayres, the youngest of the group, lived with his grandparents after his mother left two years ago. He never knew his father. “They had enough on their plate already without this,” Stephan added. Ayres’ grandmother declined to comment. The television was on at Crago’s house, but no one answered. Real’s family had moved to Brighton, according to a neighbour.

While perhaps their defence of their friends is admirable, the darker implications are made explicit by another teenager, Jack: “Everyone’s got into a fight over nothing before. I’ve kicked a tramp in the head before. You do, if you’re boozed up.”

Others who knew the boys were far less complimentary. The grandson of one of Real’s neighbours said he had often thrown stones at his grandfather, smashed windows and hurled abuse over the fence.

“He always tried to be the big man,” said Jason Evans, 16. “Always trying to make out how hard he was, pick fights with people. He wasn’t well liked – there’s been a fair few cases when half the estate had been outside his house.” He added: “You do wonder if it’s the family or whatever, but it always seemed his mother was trying to bring him up right. I never thought he could do something like that.”

Other neighbours had similar stories of abuse, smashed windows, egged cars. Poole Council said antisocial behaviour in the area had dropped 30 per cent in recent months. So if the three were not irredeemably violent, then they at least thought nothing of using violence in the extreme. The court heard how, after the initial attack, Crago and Real had come back to throw a shopping trolley onto Millward’s battered body.

Christine Barter, senior research follow at Bristol University’s School for Policy Studies said that experience of violence going un-chastised by adults, or meted out without consequence built up a greater tolerance for violence. “There may be a high tolerance of violence, not just in young peoples’ culture but within their broader communities,” she said.

“It is not always easy to pinpoint a cause,” she said. “But complex families or difficult backgrounds often appear in these cases. There does seem to be a link between experiencing violent behaviour or neglect in the home as a child and then acting out that violence later in life.”

As the boys and their families were known to social care and other council services, the Poole Safeguarding Children Board, a watchdog set up to oversee the child protection work of probation, social care, education and other services, is to hold an independent review into whether there were any missed opportunities in previous dealing with the boys, perhaps providing better means in the future to help difficult families and children.

Although the board usually looks at cases of violence by adults against children, board chairman Ron Lock felt that although “most unusual” it was right that the board also review this case.

The inquiry will report within three months. The boys’ sentencing for manslaughter is at the end of June.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, June 2010]


On Ralph Millward, one year later

Ralph Millward. Photo: Bournemouth Daily Echo
Ralph Millward. Photo: Bournemouth Daily Echo

Does what the eye not see not hurt us? If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear, does it make a sound? Among equals, are some more equal than others?

Compared to many others, Britain is not a violent country. Residents of Somalia, Congo, Brazil, Russia, or South Africa for example might disagree with a stereotypical something-must-be-done rant about the declining state of our Albion. But violence does exist on our streets and in our homes, and newspapers report it when it happens.

Or do they? In May last year, 41-year-old Ralph Millward was kicked to death outside a branch of Marks and Spencer’s in leafy Westbourne, Dorset. A few days later three teenage boys were arrested and charged with his murder. Their trial begins tomorrow in Poole.

Millward was homeless. He sold The Big Issue magazine from his pitch outside Marks, said his hellos and how-are-yous to his regulars, and slept each night in the bushes behind the shop.

His death and the manner of his death – a quiet, unassuming man who read books, kept to himself and was well liked, apparently attacked by three boys barely old enough to get a job, aged 14, 16 and 16 – sent a shockwave of revulsion through Westbourne. A few weeks later, hundreds of people walked the half mile from the spot to a nearby church to pay their last respects. The local paper, the Bournemouth Echo, of course covered the events in detail. But for the national newspapers, that a member of the street community had been brutally killed apparently by schoolboys was worth barely a word.

The day after Millward was killed, another senseless death shocked another community – 39-year-old Craig Wass, a father of four from a small village outside Sheffield, was beaten to death by a group of young men. Wass had stepped out of his house to tell the group to be quiet after their arguing had woken his children. Again, those arrested and charged with his murder were all young, late teens and early 20s.

This appalling attack was widely reported – the Sun said Wass had been “slaughtered with bricks”, the Daily Mail reported how his bride-to-be Andrea had cradled him as he breathed his last, and The Times remarked on how the “gentle giant” had been struck down.

For Millward, only a brief 100 word piece appeared in the Daily Mail noting his death, and another of similar size in The Times later remarked on the crowds at his memorial.

In a country in which only around 1,000 murders occur each year, most are reported. A murder is serious – it sends ripples through society, it can stoke fears and create change; in the law, in problem estates, in the practices and procedures of institutions like the police, social workers, or local authorities.

But a glance at newspapers over the last few years reveals a bleak trend that seems not yet to have stirred any response.

In January, a homeless man was attacked by four men while travelling by train from Croydon to London, breaking bones in his face.

In Norwich, a homeless man was kicked and beaten in the city centre in November last year, and a video of the attack posted on internet site YouTube.

Will Cameron, 27, was stabbed in the neck with a bottle last May while living homeless in Reading, where police said it was a “miracle” he was not killed.

Keiff Hunt, 45, was left for dead with multiple fractures, stitches and head wounds after being attacked by 10 men while living homeless in Bournemouth in April last year, just two weeks before Millward was killed.

Big Issue vendor Matt Browning, 33, had a glass bottle smashed over his head in Aberdeen in January 2009.

Valerie Manning, 55, living homeless in Reading, was battered and robbed on her way to church in 2008. Rough sleeper Michael Kennedy was “kicked like a football” during an assault in Norwich in April the same year, while in 2002, homeless Big Issue seller Keith Swan was attacked and killed by three men in the same city.

One rough sleeper, quoted in the Norwich Evening News earlier this year following the conviction of Manning’s attacker, said: “I have just come back from the hospital today where I had 10 stitches removed. I was attacked by a group of boys and girls who were laughing while they did it.”

Random, unprovoked violence is rare. Most murders, rapes and assaults are perpetrated by people known to the victim. The homeless face a greater level of threats, intimidation, violence and abuse by virtue of the fact that their ‘home’ is often a public thoroughfare in which the full spectrum of human life pass by.

But there seems also to be a disproportionate rise in the frequency and severity of attacks on the homeless and others in the street community, as if they have become acceptable punchbags on which society can take out its frustrations. It remains to be seen whether this week’s trial, or others like it in the future, receives the column inches it deserves within a national press obsessed with the fleeting and the banal. Because by treating those at the bottom of the pile differently from anyone else, the media risk being party to a tacit acceptance that, in Orwell’s words, some are more equal than others. That the violent and pointless death of one is worth less than another, as determined by arbitrary factors like one’s luck in life or propensity toward addictions, mental health problems, or any of the other main drivers of homelessness.

Granted, every news day sees stories competing for priority and space. Some will not make the cut. But the mark of a civilised society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable, and to ignore the violence they endure without comment is to condone it. And in the end, if our society begins to accept that degree of savagery upon one group, then it will grow to infect and affect the whole of society. Just because we don’t know about it now doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt us in the future.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]