Creatively engaging the public in criminal justice

1 Oct 2014

Susannah Henty and Sheila Brazil review two creative new events, art exhibition Catching Dreams, from the Koestler Trust and play A Matter of Mind by Cardboard Citizens:

Catching Dreams

The launch of the Koestler Trust’s annual exhibition of art by prisoners at the Southbank Centre, in London, kicked off on 24th September 2013 with a packed schedule of events; music, drama performances, speeches and a discussion with ex-prisoner curators. As a member of the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice and a charity that provides funding for arts materials as well as courses in creative subjects, Prisoners’ Education Trust is always keen to support the event. Winners and nominees of Koestler Awards, including PET's beneficiaries and alumni, often say the achievement gives them a sense of pride and self-belief that can inspire them to work towards a more positive, crime-free future.

The event began with the dulcet tones of musicians, tutors and participants involved in south west prisons’ charity Changing Tunes followed by improvisations based on the artwork. The Koestler Trust’s President Lord Ramsbotham, Chief Executive Tim Robertson and artist Bob and Roberta Smith then spoke about the importance of the annual awards and events like this.

“It’s about giving people a voice and reinvesting in human beings. Art is about freedom, in this exhibition - trying to work out what freedom means when you are given permission to think freely even in the confines of prison - that is such a powerful thing” says Bob and Roberta Smith.

Arts for life

Lord Ramsbotham said that in addition to celebrating the achievements of people currently serving sentences, the exhibition was an opportunity to involve ex-prisoners, thereby ‘encouraging arts for life’. Following on from last year’s steps to proactively recruit people with convictions by training and hiring them to work as exhibition hosts, this year Koestler have gone one step further by involving ex-prisoners as curators. The eight curators had benefited from a year-long programme of mentoring with artists. That has had an impact on the artwork chosen this year, it is arguably more representative of prison life than before; as the ex-prisoner curators included works they emotionally connected with and identified with.

 “In 2009 it was the first time anyone put belief in me when my art tutor pushed me to enter the Koestler and it changed my life. I used to draw pictures for shower gels. After the exhibition when I was released I went to college and then I got a degree, I am now a fine art graduate.” says Lee, one of the curators.

Lee also praised the mentoring initiative and the artist tutor who supports him by taking him to gallery shows and offering advice. He says this has helped change the way he thinks about his work and that of others. He described the experience of curating the show over three days in July, going through 8,000 pieces of work in a space in HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

He said his section in the exhibition is driven by emotion and his personal and professional response to the work. During the process he thought about how the exhibits reflect upon his own work, which is about heterotopias, ‘a world within a world’ and that is how he sees prisons.

Describing why he chose a skillfully carved Lion soap bar (pictured) he says: “I felt like this piece was carving away aspects of your life you are not happy with to then create this courageous figure – the lion – on soap, which cleanses you.”

Behind the scenes at the exhibition

As part of a special talk artist and prison tutor Nikki Dennington demonstrated just how important it is for people in prison to get support from dedicated teachers. Her approach is all-inclusive and encouraging she said: “I’m passionate about my job. I raise expectations and self esteem by developing good practice. I don’t exclude anyone from my classroom. One man I met said he couldn’t do anything, I encouraged him to make something small for his family for a start and 9months later he made an amazing replica of his cell which we elevated and named ‘Birdbox’, the piece won the Sarah Lucas gold award at last year’s exhibition.” Nikki added that events like this are important opportunities for people’s families to attend and especially so for prisoners who get permission to attend on license and show family and friends their work.

The Blantyre House tutor also highlighted that despite the challenges, the security rules and the lack of resources, a shortage of materials can inspire creativity. “The men are incredibly inventive, they will use anything. The one thing we don’t have is outside inspiration” she says.

Despite this, across the exhibition the standard is impressively high, evident from the large number of works that were already marked for sale, a few hours into the exhibition’s opening. So go soon to buy a piece of art and view the collection at Spirit Level, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London SE1 8XX. Daily 10am-11pm until 30 November 2014.

Supporting artists of the future: Jayne's story

Each month PET receives applications from prisoners who need help completing their art projects or just to make gifts for their families. Earlier this year, we helped Jayne by paying for oil paints, acrylic glaze and canvasses. She has been nominated by the Koestler Trust to receive an Arts Mentoring Award for a female artist and as part of this, she needs to prepare a presentation of her visual art work, which will also be displayed in 2015's exhibition at the Southbank.

She has no access to an art room or art classes at her prison, as they have closed it down. Jayne would not have been able to access any of her own materials or participate without PET's support. Her Learning and Skills manager said: “Jayne is a dedicated student and is very serious about and committed to pursuing a career in the arts field. She has been recognised for talent in both creative writing and painting. I am supporting her on an arts placement in London to progress this goal.”

A Matter of Mind

Another creative initiative PET staff attended last week was A Matter of Mind, at Bethnal Green’s Rich Mix, part lecture, part performance, part audience participation. It focused on the issue of brain plasticity in adolescents, to show how the different parts of the brain function when we are emotional. The lecture argued that as adults we can learn to control our emotional responses but this is harder for young, teenage brains which are still developing, the speaker said: “Mindfulness is a technique that you can use control your behaviour through listening to your brain, by controlling your breathing for example, and this helps to give you space to move on from the negatives - anger, hate, rage, fear, or any of the myriad of emotions we experience.

The play told the story of 15-year old Samira, who lives with her alcoholic dad who spends his days hugging a bottle of whisky and lying low in bed and her younger sister. Samira has taken over the role of mum, who walked out on the family after the dad became aggressive. The girl is clever, with ambitions to be a zoologist so she can explore marine life in a tropical island and she wants to get good GCSEs and A levels, but her father holds her back. He says she’s no better than him and that she should leave school and get a job in supermarket.

There’s no food in the house, Samira drags her reluctant sister to school every day and often arrives late, but today she’s very late and gets in trouble. Her form tutor stops her going to class and wants to know why, but she won’t say because she is scared that if Social Services got involved she and her sister would be sent to separate foster homes. So the teacher remains oblivious to what is going on in her life. After getting into a fight with the classroom bully who insults her father Samira is sent home and ends up drinking cider in a park with her only friend, a boy from school. Although he offers to help, she feels too ashamed, instead she goes to the shop and because she has no money to buy food, she steals. When she ends up at the police station her father yells at her for her behavior and won’t let her come home. She ends up on a night bus trying to get some sleep. As the play ends, the audience is left to ponder the question of what might happen to a young, vulnerable girl at night all alone in London.

Everyone’s responsibility

The 5 main actors were young people involved in Act Now, a programme run by Cardboard Citizens for young people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, directed by the charity’s Tony McBride, creative director. The writer, Ali Taylor, got the idea for the play by shadowing classes in a Tower Hamlets school where many of the children live in similar situations to Samira.

The show was so well performed, and the cast engaged the audience and help them understand these issues better by being inviting them to change the story and act it out to lead to a better outcome for Samira. There was a happier ending for Samira, but sadly that isn't always the case in real life.

To help educate young people to seek support and speak up about any family problems they have, the show is being toured around schools in the borough. It also shows increases the public's understanding of these issues and just how easy it is for disadvantaged young people to end up offending and involved in the Criminal Justice System, when really what they need is a bit of support instead.