I drew my way out of prison: Erika's story

By Erika

PET Young Adult Summit - The Conference (small)

This winter, we are raising money for women learning in prison. In this article, Erika talks about how funding for a BA Hons in Visual Arts inside opened the door to working as an artist and tutor after release.

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When I entered the prison system I was very naïve and out of my depth in this new world behind locked doors, with people you don’t know and operating in a regime far removed from ‘normal life’.

I remember it taking six weeks for me to finally get through the induction system in the education department, only to realise I was well beyond the courses on offer, having already gained a degree-level qualification. I finally managed to get into some of the creative classes – textiles and then pottery - which I found very therapeutic, but I still felt I could be challenged further.

Following a careers advice meeting I discovered that I could do distance learning. I decided on an Events Management course and wrote to PET to ask for funding. Fortunately I was accepted and received my coursework in the post. It was really exciting but I was a little daunted by the amount of handwriting I faced - the odd hour on the computer in the library was not going to cut it here!

I was really excited to find that I could study for a BA Hons and in a subject that I was passionate about.

Sometimes I found it hard to work: I was in a dorm so I had very little time when I didn’t have distractions. But I am pleased to say that I got a distinction for my course, so overcoming the trials of completing it were well rewarded!

Having completed my first course, I was keen to continue learning. I have always been involved in the arts: even while I was on bail before I entered the prison system I had set myself my own project of recording my emotions and my experience in the form of a pictorial diary. I decided to draw a postcard a day for the whole of my sentence.

While my stack of postcards grew, I discovered OCA’s The Practice of Painting course in the PET curriculum. It was only part of a degree, but I was really excited to find that I could study for a BA Hons and in a subject that I was passionate about. I had already applied to buy my own art materials as there was no place in the Art class for me, but at least I could paint in my room. (Finally I had my own single room – bliss!)

Day_0482A - Applying for a course (border)

I didn’t realise at the time that I would probably be doing this course for the next 10 years of my life, both in prison and in the community, but I am still thoroughly enjoying doing it and find it really inspiring.

I’ve seen real success with my art. I’m delighted to say my postcards have been displayed at the Koestler Trust annual exhibition at the South Bank Centre in London and at Watts Gallery in Surrey, next to GF Watts’ amazing paintings. I’m really proud that many of the pieces I produced for my coursework have gone on to be sold or have been exhibited and won awards at the Koestler Trust.

Coming out of prison with qualifications made me feel that I had put my sentence to good use.

I was really lucky to volunteer at the Koestler Trust on ROTL and continued for some time following my release. Finding work in my field of choice was not easy as I have an unusual skillset, so working freelance for me works much better.

I also now have the opportunity to feed my experience back through the organisations that have helped me. I sit with the Alumni Group for PET; have been elected to the Steering Group of the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance; and have run workshops with arts charity ‘It's Not Your Birthday But...’ at HMYOI Feltham. The opportunities that pop up can be really surprising: recently I attended PET’s Young Adult Summit at HMP Askham Grange, drawing the event to illustrate a subsequent report.

Coming out of prison with qualifications not only made me feel that I had put my sentence to good use and made the most of a bad situation. It also gave me purpose during my sentence: it kept me busy, helped me realise I could overcome adversity, and gave me a creative outlet that I am still applying in my life now.

You can find more of Erika’s postcards and other artwork on her website and on her Instagram account.

Help us transform the lives of women in prison. Donate to our Big Give campaign here.