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]


The rise of the thuggettes

Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah -
Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah -

Society faces a surge of young girl criminals if it fails to intervene to tackle the reasons they break the law, a forthcoming report has concluded.

The study suggests projects and schemes aimed at young offenders should treat females differently by addressing the effects of the violent or sexually abusive relationships and family breakdown that often lie behind their offending.

The report by the Centre for British Teachers Education Trust (CfBT) research group found that while limited work in the US has shown “promising” results, there has been little take-up in Britain. Without this change, CfBT’s director Tony McAleavy said, “the figures seem to support the fact that the further into the youth justice system you go, the more likely you are to reoffend. It’s evidence that custody doesn’t work.”

One organisation has for three years put troubled teenagers back onto the right side of the law using – perhaps surprisingly – contemporary dance, and its results are impressive. One woman, Ruth, joked: “I was a majorette as a girl, so at least I have some dancing experience.” But after becoming addicted to heroin and crack, she has spent two years in prison. “My confidence was really low but, now, to be able to get on stage without using drugs is amazing, I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

The Dance United project based in Bradford accepts teenagers and young adults from across the north. Cohorts of around 10 to 15 are put through an intensive 12-week course, with a public performance after just three weeks.

They are drawn from prison and young offenders units, from youth offending teams and probation, and from local authority care. But on stage they look every inch the part, moving together in rhythm, with flowing costumes, subtle lighting and expressive choreography, their faces masks of concentration or calm.

Kathryn Brentwoods, one of the group’s dance teachers, said the skills required to perform a dance piece from scratch in such a short time tend to act directly on the needs and fears of the participants.

She said: “The programme is structured, very disciplined – they must be in on time, concentrate in class, and we don’t compromise on the rules. They need to learn to not talk or fidget, learn self-control, and to think before they act. This comes as a shock.”

Many will have problems with intimacy, personal space, touching and being touched from their experiences, barriers which are broken down by dance moves such as lifting and catching each other.

“We found we have to build up slowly to physical contact. We have to be clear about what is good touching and what isn’t. But they begin to build a lot of skills for life –confidence, negotiation, self-control, and teamwork,” she added.

Another of the group, Jaynie, 19, from Nottingham, has been in an open prison since December. “My friend had done it before, recommended it. It’s difficult, but I feel a lot more confident. I’ve learned how to control my anger, especially here when everyone’s a lot younger than me.

“It’s great to socialise with other people, where no one knows about you or why you’re here,” she said. “It’s nice that they can look at what were doing without disapproving of what we’ve done. You’re here on a clean slate.”

Ruth, 27, from North Wales, said: “The staff are really good with you and treat you well, better than the screws.

“I’ve learnt to get along with people really quickly. I’m quite turned into myself as a person, but I’ve got over that. It’s a place where everyone can be themselves. I love it.”

She hopes to go to college to study “something physical,” while one previous participant went on to study at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

Dance United director, Rob Lynden, said the intense focus on the three-week project and discouraging talking about their backgrounds helped draw a line under their past.

He said: “It is designed to take them away from what is expected of them, where they are expected to be belligerent, problematic, where they expect to fail. Instead we can put them in a place where they can succeed.”

A Manchester University evaluation of the course found “a substantial positive impact with large numbers of participants,” and that almost three-quarters of participants re-engaged with education or employment, and reported better relationships in their personal lives.

Dance United, along with projects such as that run by Birmingham Youth Offending Team, are among the few organisations that have tried a new tack which McAleavy hopes will help cut the “alarming” rate of reoffending and high rates of self-harm among women in custody.

He said: “What we need is a much more calm and collected view about this, instead of a moral panic and media frenzy.”

“Undoubtedly people’s lives are blighted by youth crime. But question is this: will a 300 per cent increase in custody tackle youth crime? No, it will make it worse, because incarceration is strongly linked to further offending. Let’s have a debate about this and look for something that actually works.”

A common perception is that female offending is rising. Last month’s Ministry of Justice report, Women and the Criminal Justice System, fuelled headlines raging over “ladette culture.” The statistics showed a 22 per cent rise of crime over five years by girls under 18, with 251,000 arrests in 2006-07.

But this shouldn’t be taken at face value, CfBT’s Tony McAleavy said: “There is no hard evidence for radical seismic shift in girls’ offending behaviour,” he said. “The issue is to do with the response to crime.

“More girls are in court and going to custody, but the report shows this is because fewer girls are getting dealt with by reprimands or cautions. It’s the response to crime that is changing, not the criminal behaviour.”

A more heavy-handed approach by the courts has seen a 297 per cent increase in custodial sentences for girls between 1992 and 2006, compared to a 56 per cent average for under-18s of both sexes.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, agreed that earlier interventions by youth workers had led to higher numbers: “We don’t draw any strong conclusions from the caseload data,” he said.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, 2009]


Hostel that serves up cold turkey warm

St George's Hostel residents

A project has won an award for its approach of treating hardened drug users with honesty and acceptance by allowing them to continue using drug use.

The King George’s hostel in Westminster, run by English Churches Housing Group, scooped first prize at the Chartered Institute of Housing awards last week, while ECHG picked up an outstanding achievement award.

Based in a 1920s hostel in the backstreets of Victoria, King George’s houses 68 men in self-contained clusters of flats based on their needs – drugs, alcohol or mental health problems – and their progress through the programme, starting with a compulsory six-week harm reduction course called the Gateway.

ECHG specialises in working with those with the most complex problems, those that have been serially excluded or found themselves suffering the ‘revolving door syndrome’ of being bounced from provider to provider without improvement.

Despite this, there are no bars on the windows, no airlock doors and reception staff are not cocooned behind safety glass.

King George’s builds on the success of an ECHG-run wet hostel for alcoholics in Derby, another Institute of Housing award winner, taking the same approach of talking frankly and honestly with addicts about their problems in order that they can be treated from the outset, while working at reducing drug use.

Project director Stephen Davies said: “We have a twofold approach: setting up a structure with the police, hostels and support workers for the clients, while accepting that abstinence in the short term is unrealistic, instead teaching harm reduction measures. We’ve not had an overdose in the two years since Gateway started.”

Working closely with Westminster police, the project uses a loophole in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 which, while forbidding landlords to “permit or suffer the use of” opiates and cannabis on the premises, makes no mention of cocaine.

The use of crack cocaine in resident’s rooms is tolerated, though it does not go unchallenged. “Using drugs in the building means they are not using them out on the streets. It’s reduced crime and antisocial behaviour. They have access to a needle exchange and the help they need here,” Davies explained.

For users with the most chaotic, destructive lives, King George’s gives them an opportunity to eat better, live better, stay safer in their use of drugs and, ultimately, fight their addictions. The hostel’s needle exchange has a return rate of over 100 per cent – sharps are even brought in for safe disposal from elsewhere – and the residents have a near-100 per cent screening rate for TB and other blood-borne diseases.

One resident, 39-year-old Taff from Cardiff, had been a heroin user for 20 years, but reduced his methadone usage from 120ml to 30ml since entering King George’s. He has started training with British Military Fitness and has run three charity runs in the last few months.

“It feels great. I couldn’t run 100 meters when I came here,” he laughed. “Now I can outrun the Old Bill. I’ve changed so much since I got here.”

The cluster system works well, he added. “You get a single support staff for each cluster, they know your problems and what you’re like, and they’re only dealing with a few of you so you can see them if you need to, unlike in other places.”

Rodriguez, 31, from Portugal and a resident for four years, said: “Some people look at the homeless and say, we’re just filthy junkies. But we’ve got problems. When I see fat people, who say they can’t lose weight, I think, just stop eating. But the fact is they’ve got problems too, like us. To be honest, I wish I’d never met drugs in my life.”

Rodriguez, a former carpenter, works as the handyman in the hostel, keeping busy by fixing and mending.

“It’s about finding that spark of interest to move someone onto work or training, any interest to fill the gap that drugs have filled, whether its gardening, DIY, sport – anything,” Davies said.

Banning drugs and alcohol outright, as in almost all other hostels, does not ultimately help users, Davies said, as breaking rules leads to expulsion from the hostel – back onto the streets, possibly back towards crime and antisocial behaviour and away from the help they need.

Davies said the approach was “very effective. It sounds obvious, but most hostels don’t work with drug users, and few if any allow drugs on the premises.

“For many of our guys abstinence is a long way off, but by teaching harm reduction they have moved from heavy to light use, from injecting to smoking. The path from harm reduction to abstinence is a rocky road which we try to help people along, but it’s not a journey we can hope to make unless we are honest about it.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, December 2008]



Barbed graphic design studio
Barbed graphic design studio. Credit: Barbed/Howard League

A groundbreaking project in which prison inmates run a design company from behind bars in an effort to reduce reoffending rates is under threat of closure.

Barbed, a graphic design studio based at HMP Coldingley in Bisley, Surrey, was set up by charity the Howard League for Penal Reform in October 2005 to train and employ inmates as graphic designers.

Launched with £100,000 funding, Barbed is the first attempt to run a commercially viable social enterprise within a prison and supports 60 per cent of its costs through client work.

Clients include many organisations within the field, such as the Butler Trust, Prison Education Trust and the Howard League, but also NHS trusts, legal firm Clifford Chance and even Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But according to a report seen exclusively by The Big Issue, the project, housed within the Category C secure prison, may close because of lack of support.

Andrew Neilson, assistant director of policy at the Howard League, who oversees Barbed, told The Big Issue: “The project was never set up to run forever, but neither the Prison Service nor the government have showed any interest in the idea as a pilot of how real, skilled labour in prisons could work.”

Report author Penny Green, professor of criminology at King’s College London, was tasked by the Howard League to independently assess Barbed’s progress. Her findings, due for publication next month, detail a catalogue of obstacles that have undermined the credibility of the project.

Many of the setbacks are directly linked to prison overcrowding: inmates trained for six months are moved without warning to other prisons to make way for new arrivals, or moved after being re-categorised up to category B or down to category D open prisons. Studio staff are prevented from working by security lock-downs, and working hours have also been cut to around five hours a day.

Barbed staff are also paid a real, above-minimum wage from which tax and National Insurance contributions are deducted. To further emulate the costs of life on the outside, a third of prisoners’ wages is deducted and given to charity.

Barbed’s organisers aimed to introduce skilled work to prisoners who perhaps had no experience of it, complete with a working day, deadlines and the payment of tax to the state as part of the social contract.

But late last year, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) refused to accept the tax and returned a cheque for £18,000 to the Howard League. A letter from HMRC stated that while prisoners based at open prisons working on day release were liable for tax, those working within more secure prisons were not.

The Ministry Of Justice argued that as prisoners are not under contract for the work they do, they are not employees, and as such cannot be taxed.

This contradiction was described by the Howard League’s Euginia Lolomari as “an anomaly that they recognise, but on which they are unwilling to shift”.

She believes government ministers quail at inmates earning a ‘real’ wage for productive work, as opposed to the token Prison Service wage of between £5 and £30 a week earned by inmates for prison jobs such as laundry and packing – and in particular the legal employment rights it would imply.

She said: “The whole point of the project is to demonstrate that businesses based in prison can work, and that prisoners given a full working day and paid a realistic wage are motivated to produce a good level of skilled work.”

Describing the HMRC’s position as ‘Kafkaesque’, Professor Green’s report states that the future of Barbed and projects like it requires the “urgent resolution” of legal issues surrounding prisoner employment. Reforming prison work would require “a wholesale commitment on the part of the Prison Service, which to date is absent”.

She continues: “Denied a meaningful wage and legal employment rights, prison work, from the prisoner’s perspective, is thus linked more with exploitative punishment than reward, and does little to challenge offending behaviour.”

At HMP Coldingley, the Barbed studio looks much like any other small business office: there are half a dozen Apple Macs, pin-boards cluttered with newspaper clippings, diagrams, and finished work adorns the walls.

Barbed has trained 11 inmates, but this has been reduced to three designers and professional studio manager David Allen after staff were moved to other prisons.

For designer Leon, who is in the last stretch of a five-year sentence, it has been a steep learning curve. The 33-year-old said: “It was tricky getting my head around it, but I really enjoy it. It gives me something to look forward to. When I get out in six months I’m planning to set up a social enterprise design business of my own. It’s given me the skills to do that.”

He criticised much of the prison’s other work training. “You just sit around all day. It’s not actually teaching you skills to get a job with outside,” he said.

Another designer, 48-year-old B, has spent the last five years of his life sentence at Coldingley and is up for parole in April. He said: “Working here has been great for me. It’s been a great distraction to everything out there” – he gestures outside the studio’s partition walls – “and a break from the monotony of it all.

“I’ve learnt skills I can use outside. There were a few guys in here that had never worked a job in their life, so it must have been a great help for them and great experience to keep them out of prison in the future.”

One former inmate who worked on the Barbed project has even gone on to work for the Howard League since his release.

But organisations working in the penal system say that the loss of inventive projects like Barbed is almost certain under new recommendations to build super-prisons.

Critics have warned that Titan prisons mean less staff per prisoner, longer lock-up hours and tighter security, all of which work against organisations trying to run rehabilitation programmes.

Barbed studio manager David Allen described running the studio as both rewarding and frustrating. He said: “People get upset that prisoners are working, but would they rather they were doing nothing and getting angrier and more resentful with society? The effect on the guys has been massively positive. They are enthusiastic and keen to work. In prison, at some point, the punishment has to end and the rehabilitation to begin.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]