RE:FORM arts in prison

19 Oct 2015

PET's Susannah Henty reports back from arts criminal justice charity the Koestler Trust's annual exhibition: 

"This autumn arts criminal justice charity the Koestler Trust has yet again teamed up with the Southbank Centre to hold an exhibition showcasing its annual award winners. The annual exhibition gives the general public a rare insight into life behind prison walls and prisoners an outlet for their talents.

Importantly, it brings prisoners, secure patients, detainees and people with convictions together with the wider community.

The show, RE:FORM, includes a fantastic collection of fine art, poetry, text, music, design and sculpture all responding to the brief ‘Journey’. As the Koestler trust said: “Works made in response to this theme are spread throughout the show, helping tie it together with reflections on journeys through the criminal justice system, life and learning.”

On behalf of PET, I attended the launch event to celebrate the achievements of the talented artists who contributed to the show, which over the years have included many of our beneficiaries, as we give prisoners funding for art materials as well as offering opportunities to study creative courses such as Creative Writing right up to Arts and Languages Access courses with The Open University.

We support people in prisons to explore creative subjects because we know art helps people in prison for a variety of reasons, from helping them to cope with mental health conditions to offering a route to get back into more academic education, but the impact is also significant to reducing reoffending as new evidence from September’s Justice Data Lab report affirms.

The ‘RE:FORM’ launch kicked off on Thursday 1 October with swing music from Liberty Choir followed by the former Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Koestler trustee Dame Anne Owers, who said: “Art allows prisoners to think of themselves as an artist, writer, musician, not an offender, a human being.”

Justice Secretary Michael Gove MP, further endorsed this view and spoke about the importance of not labelling people in prison as ‘offenders’ forever and that creativity allows us to recognise the humanity in people with convictions, as he says:

“How many of us would want to have our lives defined by our worst moment…it is wrong to think of them forever as offenders and instead, we should think of them as potential assets. When someone is in prison it is an opportunity for them to reflect and for us to help.”

With an endorsement of the exhibition, Mr Gove then congratulated the winners and said he was “grateful to the artists for giving us an insight into their worlds.”

As well as showcasing art, the Koestler Trust also employs ex-prisoners to work as hosts, who are specially trained to give visitors guided tours. PET’s alumnus Frank Harris (pictured) was recruited as one of these hosts, and when I joined his tour, he explained the history of charity and the awards process, before giving us information about the exhibits. As we admired ‘Warrior’ a portrait in the entrance hall made from recycled metal, Frank gives us an insight into prison life, as he says: “I’m not sure how he was given permission to have all those sharp objects because when I was in prison you wouldn’t have been allowed!”

Much of the artwork on show at the exhibition is also up for sale, with profits distributed between the artist, Koestler and Victim Support. The pieces were selected from 8,509 entries by a prestigious panel of judges including Jeremy Deller, Alan Kane, Carol Ann Duffy, the BFI and Hot Chip.

The exhibition will be on until 29 November, so go along, take a tour, leave feedback and why not buy a piece of original art?"

For more information visit the Koestler Trust. Also on the south bank in October was an event devoted to discussion and performance of the arts in the criminal justice system (CJS) at the National Theatre. Read more.