Continuing collaboration during the Covid-19 crisis
Alison Frater, Chair of the NCJAA, reflects on her conversations with arts practitioners and prison staff, and what their responses to the crisis tell us about the critical value of arts and culture for criminal justice settings in this moment.
In recent weeks, I’ve been talking to artists and arts organisations who work with people in prison about the impact of Covid-19 and the ongoing lockdown. These conversations have revealed something essential to me. It’s not just that creativity is core to everyone’s survival during this time; it’s that there is an unstoppable drive across our network, which keeps people making high quality creative work to connect people and give voice to those in criminal justice settings, even in the face of a global pandemic.
An arts and culture resurgence
Absent from core school curricula, deprioritised and stripped of funding, arts and culture have seemed neglected of late, taken for granted. So it is a joy to see the surge in attention being given to arts and culture in the YouTube, Big Night In, House Party streaming of music, theatre, dance and virtual gallery visits during the lockdown. It is both wonderful and striking that arts and culture are suddenly getting name checked across the media.
In this moment of crisis, people are reaching for books about the plague or disasters, catastrophe and contagion to validate current experience. Can knowing how someone else felt, coped, survived, show us how we can too?
For myself, I’ve found this resonance in reading Colson Whitehead’s, The Nickel Boys, watching Open Clasp’s Key Change, going online with Clean Break, listening to music from Changing Tunes and Music in Prisons .
People inside prisons are also reaching for arts and culture. There is massive demand for resources, books, paper, pens, pencils, tapes. Arts in criminal justice has always been about commitment. That commitment is abundantly evident now. The first thought of the artists and arts organisations involved isn’t how will we survive – though that is a nagging, waking up in the night panic – it’s about how can we go on doing what we do?
“There’s no choice. It’s a passion, a promise to deliver music collectively in the way we do…that’s what transforms lives,” says Sara Lee from Irene Taylor Trust, “and we can’t put it online, it wouldn’t work”. Starting with small groups, people they already know, Sara and the team are working to deliver collaborative work remotely, sending in CDs, encouraging lyric writing, hoping to get it back out for editing, arranging, shaping, forming, fulfilling.
“Working together… it’s about the energy from interaction. Learning through that experience is how we grow, change, reform,” says Saul Hewish, from Rideout, also struggling to find ways to work with technologies that can overcome physical boundaries.
For many practitioners and artists resident in prisons, the fear is about interrupting something that was making a big difference to people keeping them above the high water mark, lifting low mood.
“I’ve written to the group,” says Rowan Mackenzie of Shakespeare UnBard, “sending in ideas for character development, thinking about writing monologues, how we can develop the play. I’m suggesting we all work at the same time of day on the rehearsals, symbolic I know, but, we’re so used to working as a group, I think it will help”.
Clean Break, a women’s theatre company has kicked off ‘Write 2 Connect’ encouraging people to exchange letters with women on the inside and they’ve started ‘2 metres apart’ getting people to work together to share what collaboration means. “We can adapt what we do but we really hope we all come back from this with a different set of priorities for people affected by criminal justice,” says Anna Herrmann, joint artistic director, “This crisis demonstrates more than ever the need to reduce the numbers of people in prison and put arts at the heart of reform.”
“This is the first time we haven’t been in a prison in 33 years,” says David Jones of Changing Tunes. “We are writing to everyone who we’ve been working with and persuading governors to let us take in acoustic instruments and scores for new songs. That way we can keep in touch, get some recording done and plan for the future.”
For everyone on the inside, daily life brings significant challenges. Chief Inspector’s reports frequently comment on the lack of cleanliness and the difficulty of maintaining hygiene in overcrowded shared facilities in old buildings. Corridors, wings and shared cells are not set up for social distancing and lockdown in an already closed institution increases anxiety, but governors are reporting a feeling of mutual support on the inside.
“Everyone has worries but there are also so many examples of people working together, bravery and good turns among the staff and the residents,” says one governor. “We have a duty of care for people inside and they value the support of prisons officers who, let’s face it, don’t have to turn up for work. Prison officers, not often recognised as key workers, are doing the best they can. The planned early release of some prisoners is beginning to happen and there is some testing on the inside but PPE is limited and people with Covid-19 are still being transferred in on recalls, despite courts being closed.”
Throughout this crisis we are seeing a great many prison officers and governors on the ground supporting the arts. As a community, we are discovering what works and sharing ideas through the NCJAA network. On a small scale initially, networks are becoming available to distribute and disseminate opportunities for doing and learning: safer custody teams, learning and skills leads, the chaplaincy, the Prisoner Learning Alliance and the HMPPS intranet.
Individual prison officers are photocopying work packs, taking musical instruments in, copying scripts and scores, enabling letter writing and encouraging contact with friends and families however and wherever they can. The Prison Radio Association and Way Out TV are able to deliver programmes and broadcast ideas and requests.
For delivering vital activities for daily living, work, education, arts – this crisis is setting an agenda for urgent reform. Whatever happens, arts organisations will continue on, finding solutions built on working together. As we are seeing, only by sharing and partnering, uniting the inside and out, will we find the humanity for healing.
The NCJAA team are working hard to map and champion arts in criminal justice through this crisis. To report your current activity or find out more about what NCJAA are doing for arts in criminal justice at this time, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Clinks are also conducting a bi-weekly survey of the impact of Covid-19 on the voluntary sector working in criminal justice. Visit Clinks’ website for the key findings so far and details of how you can take part in the next survey.