Art as Rehabilitation for Prisoners

“I’ve been into prisons all over the world and the main thing they all have in common is WASTE.
Waste of time
Waste of opportunity
Waste of human potential”

The moment I walked into Long Bay Jail in Sydney to do a mural project, I knew “This is it! This is what I want to do”. It was 1987 and prison policy in England was little more than: Bang ‘em up, flog ’em and throw away the key. As an artist in my early twenties, I was convinced that this punitive approach was both illogical and counterproductive and believed that creativity would be a more effective way to transform the destructive behaviour of offenders.

Armed with an Artistic Therapy Diploma specializing in colour, I went on to develop my ideas in Cologne Prison running art classes and mural projects for prisoners of all categories, ages and abilities. Participants and staff alike noticed the positive and powerful impact: Within weeks angry men transformed; confidence and self-esteem grew into strong desires to learn more; and relationships between staff and prisoners softened as their shared environment was humanised by colour and art. Through listening to their stories and witnessing the problems, it gradually became clear to me what exactly was needed to bring about positive changes in offenders’ lives and minds. For many it was simply being shown respect and trusted or being listened to without judgment, that made them want to be their better selves. Read their testimonials

Back in London as the Arts Coordinator to the Koestler Trust we established the Learning to Learn through the Arts scheme – multi media art projects designed to inspire prisoners to want to learn – with equally positive results.

In 2016, David Cameron finally acknowledged the “scandalous failure” our prison system has become. For the first time in my 30 years of working in prisons or making the case for the arts in my public talks, people working in the sector had real hopes for the promised ‘rehabilitation revolution’. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove was consulting all the experts and arts organisations and had commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create a Review of Prison Education. I was delighted to have the opportunity to contribute my extensive experience and expertise both to the Review and to the Ministry of Justice’s current policy-making and education strategies.

Read my monthly blogs - relating to Criminal Justice, Germany’s and Britain’s differing cultures of World War 2 Remembrance, and art as a tool for change