Art and catharsis: Jayne's story

There is a palpable anxiety amongst the women in prison about being accepted. There is a fear that they will always be judged by their past and will never truly serve their sentence, despite what efforts on their part to improve themselves.

School was never a happy place for me - from teacher-to-peer bullying (if you struggled with a particular subject you were publicly ridiculed), to an inept curriculum and poorly delivered lessons. At 16 I had sufficiently good qualifications to allow me to leave and start an administration role within the civil service. I was gainfully employed in a variety of sectors, my last role being for as a trainer/auditor for an international logistics company, a position that ended when I was convicted and sent to prison at the age of 34.

It took time to settle into prison life and come to terms with the enormity of the situation and the loss of my partner, career, home, liberty, my much-longed-for only child, and the loss of who I was. During those early days the only the only thing I could do was paint. I’d never done art before, but it was a cathartic way to express myself. I felt in high state of emotion painting: initially sadness or anger, but gradually lifted and free. Later I took Level 3 in art and submitted works to the Koestler Arts Awards. To my amazement these not only won awards but actually sold to the public too.

Before prison, I had managed to progress in my career without much in the way of formal qualifications, but I was under no illusion that this would be the case after release. I knew I had to use my time constructively to give myself the best possible chance of employment in the future. But belief in myself was at an all-time-low - my thoughts were: “Who would want to help someone like me, who doesn’t even believe that she has the ability to complete a course, or has the right to ask anyone for help?” My attitude was commonplace. There was a palpable anxiety amongst the women I met about being accepted. There is a fear that they will always be judged by their past and will never truly serve their sentence, despite efforts to improve themselves.

I cannot express sufficiently how much this meant to me when Prisoners’ Education Trust agreed to assist me in enrolling on an Open University (OU) foundation course in history. I took my studying very seriously – determined to prove myself to the people that invested their trust and money in me. Fortunately, back then if a prisoner gained external funding and completed their first course, the OU would cover the cost of the rest of the courses required to gain a degree. So I went for it, studying humanities with specialisms in art history and creative writing.

It took me five years to complete the degree. I graduated in 2014, attending (whilst on Release On Temporary License) a graduation ceremony with thousands of others at the Barbican in London. I was awarded a BA (Hons) in Humanities, 2.1.

Since my release in 2015 I have been working for the charity Only Connect, where I have been fortunate enough to talk about my experiences of the criminal justice system, meeting some amazing people in the process. Thanks to PET I was awarded the John Allt award, which helps people continue education after release.

This allowed me to purchase art materials so that I could continue painting at home, which is something that continues to be extremely cathartic and rewarding for me.

Time is now my biggest barrier. Like many others I had to start from scratch in a world I no longer recognised and felt disjointed from - it’s that square-peg-in-a-round-hole feeling that takes time to shift. I have the determination however, not least because I was able to get through those years in very challenging circumstances and find a latent ability and get that degree I always wanted.

The person I was before going to prison never gave a second thought to offenders. I believed that prison was the best place for ‘such people’. If there is one thing to be grateful for it’s that my blinkers were removed. I saw the human element of people behind bars, many of whom were victims of their circumstances - people who arrive at the prison gates broken but not irreparable; people who could be helped way before they enter the criminal justice system if only someone would listen, understand and support them.

Who knows what’s next for me. All I know is that I am now never going to stop reaching for the stars no matter what life throws at me. To those in prison at the moment and considering distance learning I would say: research the best course for you, something that you have always had an interest in, or feeds into the career you have always wanted, and take small steps towards achieving that. It will at times be hard and it will need your determination and self motivation to succeed but my friend it’s the best thing you can do, if for nothing else than to prove to yourself that you can be more than you are and go for those dreams that you have.