A couple of years ago I was back in Birmingham, where I grew up, and visiting the Ikon Gallery. In the gift shop a book of prints caught my attention, depicting work from an exhibition called In Place of Hate, a striking series of images consisting of large-scale prints of preserved plants and flowers along with various portraits of prison inmates at HMP Grendon, Europe’s only therapeutic prison. Shot through a pinhole camera to preserve their identities, the figures appeared ethereal, blurred, almost like ghosts. And yet in their very insubstantiality they were also powerfully, inescapably real, even more so perhaps than if they had been clearly identified. In their hazy conjuration on the gallery walls, or in print, they stood for all prisoners everywhere.

The work was put together under the supervision of Edmund Clark, artist-in-residence at Grendon. At the time I remember being struck by the vividness with which Clark’s images brought home the haunting reality of incarceration, his figures invisible to the public but still unmistakably present. But the more I dug into the project the more I discovered how involved the prisoners had been themselves in bringing this and various other projects to life. At Grendon they had participated in drama workshops, diary-writing and other forms of artistic practice as a way to grapple with their conditions and challenging life circumstances. For many of the inmates, it was the first opportunity for self-reflection and expression, in a therapeutic context, that they had ever had.

There is plenty of evidence to show that the arts can be a vital component of the rehabilitative process. One study in 2014 by the University of San Francisco looked at the impact of theatre and arts programmes on a number of inmates at California prisons, including New Folsom, Soledad and San Quentin. What emerged was a positive correlation between participating in the programmes and a variety of valuable skills including time management, achievement motivation, intellectual flexibility and emotional control. The report also found a reduction in disciplinary reports, and a greater participation in academic and vocational programmes, among those who took part in these arts projects.

Meanwhile in the UK, with institutions such as Grendon assembling more evidence as to the effectiveness of their therapeutic approach, the arts are also showing what they can contribute to the prison system more widely. The National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) works in a variety of settings where it has seen participation in the arts reconnect people in custody with their families  and communities, ameliorate emotional distress and reduce instances of aggression and violence. Its library of evidence on the positive effects of its workshops continues to grow.

The Koestler Arts initiative runs an awards scheme every year for, in the words of its founder Arthur Koestler, ‘creative work in the fields of literature, the arts or sciences by those physically confined’. Entrants report a variety of benefits even if they don’t necessarily win, in everything from improved self-confidence and better relationships with prison staff, friends and family all the way to an improved ability to stop engaging in criminal behaviour.

This kind of art also brings an appreciative, mainstream audiences from outside the criminal justice system, eager to see what those inside have to offer. In the world of radio and podcasting shows like National Prison Radio’s the Secret Life of Prisons, or Ear Hustle in the USA, not only provide a humanising and enlightening experience for the listener, but those prisoners participating in and producing their own shows are given ownership of a cultural production in which they can take a good deal of (well-earned) pride.

I would argue this also points to a value in the arts beyond their utilitarian function in rehabilitating offenders. Art is a means by which prisoners can present themselves to the society that the vast majority of them will rejoin one day. Even as it allows them to show the world how they are advancing in their rehabilitation, it also goes deeper than that. It allows them to be seen as fellow humans with dignity, worthy of respect.

For those who enjoy life outside of prison, with all their rights and liberties still intact, encounters like these are also powerful correctives against disregarding the lives of those inside. It is difficult to keep thinking of prisoners as simply ‘bad people’ going through their justified punishment by society when you have also seen them lay their souls bare in works of art.

Outside my life in the law I also write poetry, and in my particular part of the community in London and its surroundings I know a number of poets who have also taught and coached people through writing courses while they were in custody (I have been inside prisons on a number of occasions both professionally and as a volunteer, but have never yet been brave enough to take my poetry inside with me).

Any or all of these practitioners would, I’m sure, speak about the practical benefits of the arts which I have already outlined. But many of them would also speak about the powerful effects that taking part in such workshops have on their participants in ways that are less easy to quantify. People who learn to create worlds with their words, and who have those words validated and appreciated, gain a keen sense of their own potential that they might not have been encouraged to foster before. With the right teacher and the right tools, in an environment that welcomes experimentation and a sense of adventure, they can come to value their experiences, even their traumas, in a wholly new transformative way.

As a means to imagine the world other than it is, and give us a vision of how it might be, art and poetry can be a source of consolation for those struggling both inside and outside prison. It can provide a means of making up for the fact that the workaday world is often much more incoherent, broken and violated than the worlds we consume through beautiful art, a function that Seamus Heaney once called ‘the redress of poetry’.

But for those who are in the process of piecing back together a broken life, or looking to mend the cracks in the one they are now living, I have also found that poetry offers something inestimably precious. It allows people to take a hold of the blurred, smoky after-image of their lives, hold them up to the light and see how beauty can be assembled out of turbulence and uncertainty. It lets us see peace and meaning in place of hate. We are permitted, even encouraged, to see our own lives, flawed and incomplete as they may be, as works of art.

Mental Health Awareness Week 10-16 May 2021

Creativity in a restricted regime: a guide for prison staff (National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance)