You are sitting in the gloomy van with darkened windows and locked doors; it stops and you hear the creak of heavy doors opening ahead; the van moves forward and there is a deafening and eerie sound as the doors shut and are bolted behind you, then the van doors open slowly. This is it – your home for the next stage in your life; perhaps a year; perhaps many years, strangely described as at “Her Majesty’s pleasure”.
Are prisons for incarceration and punishment, or are they for rehabilitation?. Sadly, the focus seems to be on the former, in part due to the inheritance of 19th century prison buildings that Charles Dickens would recognise. The Prime Minister David Cameron recognises the failings and that things need to change. At the 2015 Conservative Party Conference he declared that prison “all too often fails and entrenches poverty….. Now I believe if you’ve committed a crime, punishment must follow. And when it’s serious enough, that punishment must mean prison……But the system is still not working. Half of criminals offend within a year of being released. Nearly half go into prison with no qualifications and many come out with none either……We have got to get away from the sterile ‘lock-em-up or let-em-out’ debate, and get smart about this. When prisoners are in jail, we have their full attention for months at a time – so let’s treat their problems, educate them, put them to work……And when our prisons are relics from the time of Dickens – it is time to sell them off and build new ones that actually work.”
Art can make a real difference and the Koestler Trust has been running an award programme for offenders, secure patients and detainees for over 50 years to provide an outlet for creative energies and emotions, to discover and develop hidden talents and to encourage inmates to continue in arts and education and, through the awards, recognise the amazing skills and achievements that exist within these institutions.
The results of the 2015 awards on display at the South Bank Centre in London show the incredible diversity, creativity and skill that has exists and which hopefully can be nurtured to help offenders move into a new environment and perhaps a new career. Materials can be hard to find so budding artists often have to make the most of what can be found using recycled materials, matchsticks and white bars of prison soap.
There is a rich variety of ceramic work on display, including the “Lump of Fortitude” by Sean at HM Prison Dovegate and “My Journey”, also from HM Prison Dovegate, representing the life of living in a suitcase “carrying everything like my feelings and emotions locked up inside” and the aim to do better to create a new life.
As is to be expected, many artworks provide commentaries on the world of crime, life behind prison walls or on modern society. Chris at HM Prison Edinburgh in “Lisa Your Bairn’s Getting Taken off You” shows the real price of herion addiction on a family and one of the most beautiful and most moving paintings is “Love and Life” from a talented artist at HM Prison Grendon where she wants to capture the bond between a parent and a child. Paddy at HM Prison Haverigg paints about his frustration with the system and Craig from HM Prison Shotts reflects that society’s view of prisoners is very much like its view of derelict buildings – a failure to see the potential, and David from HM Prison Swaleside asks “Who Really Pulls the Strings” in our society.
There is hope however, in “Imagination” from HM Young Offender Institution Warrington and in poetry: “Jail is like purgatory. You are still around, but you have no impact. No effect. The point of your existence is void. You slowly begin to die. But there are two ways out of purgatory. One is tortuously meandering and slow death. The other is to fight back with an all-consuming desire for life”. (Adam, HM Prison Wakfield).
An amazing exhibition of talent and creativity; hopefully some of these individuals will continue with a career in arts and the creative industries when they have the opportunity to move on from their current situation.