Creating Roots for well-being through art
This blog is guest written by Mark Jones.
Mark is Director at Higher Plain and Visiting Professor of Criminology at University South Wales
Contributing Authors with links to individual blogs on creative roots Experiences below within Artist experiences section of this blog.
The Creative Roots Project is an arts project that has been funded by the Arts Council for Wales and G4S and was delivered in Parc Prison from September 2022 to May 2023. Creative Roots was delivered through a multi-skilled arts team under the performance, live art and dance organisation Mr & Mrs Clark. The Creative Roots project aimed to provide a safe space for residents of Parc Prison to take time out of their daily routine to engage in a range of activities on the prison wing. Creative Roots offered an introduction to yoga style mindfulness exercises and different ways of creating art. Residents also had the opportunity to take part in sessions focussed on arts practices such as printmaking, fine art and painting, and photo journalism. Everyone who took part displayed their artwork in an exhibition inside and outside the prison in May 2023.
Understanding the impact of art within Prison
As the independent project researcher from Higher Plain I used informal focus groups to support all those who those who had engaged to be heard and listened to, and using such approaches are important when working with vulnerable groups and viewed as ethical and inclusive practice. The focus groups themes explored general experiences of the arts project but also the five themes from the CHIME recovery model for mental health to better understand the overall narratives and the well-being of the men during and following their engagement with the project. This approach has been used within a similar project called the Soft Touch Arts project at HMP Leicester recently (as well as other projects in criminal justice settings), so has been shown to be useful for gaining insights into overall health and well-being of people that live in prison. CHIME is an acronym for Connectedness, Hope and Optimism, Identity (changes to/of), Meaning (to self, mental health, others, goals), and Empowerment, Choice, and control (over one’s life).
The components of CHIME are viewed as the key elements that every person needs to feel a whole healthy person and therefore these being present in a positive way in someone’s life are essential for recovery, whether that be for mental health as first envisaged, or now as widely used, for recovery and rehabilitation from criminal activity and the experiences of being engaged within the criminal justice system. Essentially, the research aim was to explore if engaging with experiences of yoga, mindfulness, and art practices (that the Creative Roots project offered) had any positive influence and effect on the well-being and health of the men engaged with the project. Focus groups were also facilitated with the prison staff involved with the project and the artists that led the project, and more of their experiences later.
Being treated as and feeling fully human
The conversations with the men who engaged with the project over the nine months with the Creative Roots team and within the focus groups at the end of each art practice theme, as well as during the end of project exhibition, illustrated the challenging reality of living in prison. But, it also gave us insights into the humanity that exists in prison and how, when treating those who live in prison with respect, dignity, and as fully human, it can create an environment for change and personal growth. The impact of this project must be stated with balance and caution to not making too grand a claim as the outcomes and narratives shared need to be realistic and trustworthy. However, it is not over-stating the effects of this project to propose that it provided opportunities for personal growth and overall improvement in well-being and using the CHIME model as a reference to structure this it is clear to see.
All the men engaged started to feel greater connection to each other and the artists from Creative Roots. The men during focus groups said that the project had ‘helped me make friends & feel comfortable’ and that we are ‘all different but it’s brought us all together’ and that ‘being with different people that are not from here and it being positive’ has supported the men to build ‘positive relationships and I can be myself. I’m relaxed here.’ Almost all the men stated that they ‘feel respected here and treated as a human’ within the project and many stated they didn’t feel valued or respected in the prison most of the time.
The men also spoke of increased hope and optimism during and following the project with many explaining that they had ‘opened up and want to try new things’ and how because they had been ‘treated differently, that’s given me hope, hope we can be seen and treated differently to how we normally are’ and that ‘I don’t feel like a prisoner and I feel that I won’t always be.’ Behaviour change during the project was also noted with many stating that ‘I just feel more optimistic for the week’ and that ‘it gave new meaning and hope to an otherwise quite negative world’ and so ‘I made sure I kept my behaviour tidy as I didn’t want anyone to take this away from me.’
The way that the men viewed themselves as people and their identity changed too. Many spoke of how they could see themselves in more a positive light and that ‘I can be more myself here and I’m not just a criminal’ and others clearly enjoyed being a learner and stated that ‘I’m treated as a pupil and as an equal not a prisoner.’ Indeed, not being seen as a criminal and almost needing to act in a certain way in prison to survive is captured well by one man who said ‘I can take my mask off once I’m here. I don’t have to look tough or kind of, you know, you have to be a certain way out there. You can’t be vulnerable out there.’ So, for many letting go of an identity in the daily life of prison was very positive and many stated how the project has supported freedom and that ‘It’s about exploring and trying new things and not feeling embarrassed or defensive. I’ve just ley my guard down.’ Some of those that engaged also spoke passionately about developing current identities as fathers, and before the project felt they couldn’t do much with their children but that they could ‘be a better dad now and do this with my kids. I never thought I’d do this sort of thing. It’s great.’ You could see the confidence grow within the groups and some of the men really took on supporting roles to their peers and some of those that did feel they could progress with this role as ‘I’ve loved this, I’ve loved supporting people, I’d love to teach others.’
The arts experiences also gave greater meaning to the people who took part and many felt that ‘I‘m bettering myself with this. It’s become more than the art.’ Some of the men expanded on this and explained that they felt they had ‘been challenged to think differently’ and that ‘It’s helped my mental health. I’m less anxious. I can calm myself down with breathing.’ The support it gave to the men to feel mentally more positive was clear and one of the men stated that the project has been ‘like a health pill. I feel better about myself. I feel calmer. I feel more human. I feel alive.’ All the men engaged spoke of how positive it was to do something new and different and that it had ignited something in them and they were ‘hungry to learn more and do other projects. It feels so good to learn and to do new things.’
The experiences over the course of the project all contributed to the men feeling they had more choice and control over their lives whilst engaging in it and that this had a positive impact on behaviour and commitment to the learning. One resident who openly talked of how anti-establishment he was said, that ‘I had choice and respect so I didn’t rebel. I had control over my learning’ whilst another stated ‘We have choice here, I’m free to decide. I love that freedom.’ There were other elements to the project that included breathing, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness and many found this really useful for self-control and that ‘the breathing and calming mind stuff. I’ve new skills to help my mental health and anger’ and another person agreed and said that ‘It’s helped my ADHD, slowed me down, helped my focus, my self-control.’
Artist Experiences of the Project
Working within the Creative Roots team has been impactful for us all and when asked to write about their experiences of the project all the artists wrote enough for a blog each! SO, that’s what we’ve done and if you click on their names you can read their full insights in their own personal blog about the project.
Gareth Clark is a theatre maker whose work embraces the struggles of humanity and questions the way we live and are governed.
Dee Rogers is a co-director of Das Clarks and a professional hybrid. Their creative work focuses on difference and language.
Marega Palser is a multi-dimensional shape shifting performance-based artist.
Jo Haycock is a documentary and portrait photographer who explores the relationships that people have between themselves, others and the spaces they connect in. Storytelling photography for communities, families and social documentaries.
Marion Cheung is a multidisciplinary artist based in South Wales, with over 10 years of experience in Participatory Arts Practice specialising within Arts in Health.
Bill Chambers is a freelance artist and printmaker working in community arts and education.
It is worthy to note here though that the experiences across all of the creative roots team shared some commonality. Many of the team had not worked within a prison environment before and so were quite nervous about entering such an environment and were worried what effects it might have on their ability and skill to teach, engage, and do the project justice.
What was clear across all the artists is that they quickly found the work to be powerful, inspiring, and impactful for the men who took part and themselves as artists and as people. All of the artists felt they were part of community during the project that was connected, respectful, open, vulnerable, and honest, it was a fully human experience. All of the artists felt and experienced the men who engaged as highly creative, capable, and willing to learn and take chances in their learning journey; it inspired all of the artists and impacted on their future work as an artist and on the want to continue working within this space. Working with people that have faced so much and have multiple challenges of living within the criminal justice system and many who deal with trauma, addiction, disability and or neurodiversity. Ultimately, the artist believe that the project gave some respite from a restrictive and demanding world where the men could feel safe and not be seen as a criminal or a prisoner and find opportunities to connect with others and just seen as a human, to be listened to, heard, and have choice, and learn new ways of being and just be creative and play; ultimately it perhaps gave everyone some hope for the future and for positive future selves. The project from all the artists perspectives was that the project supported overall well-being and that more of this work is needed within prison environments. There is too much to write here so please do read their accounts by following the links above.
Ultimately, the project did increase the feelings and experiences of connectivity, hope, identity, meaning, and empowerment with all residents that engaged with it. It gave those involved an opportunity to take off the prisoner mask and be more relaxed, more open, and creative, and in doing so the experiences and outcomes were positive and transformational. An interesting perspective from one resident was that ‘Things like this can help reduce crime in prison and on the outside too. When we have support and a focus like this people won’t want to use drugs, do violence, and people just giving up because they have nothing to do and are bored.’ Although this was a small-scale project in one prison it does have some useful learning and application to all prison settings and what seems to be key for education provision is developing informal discussion-based learning environments where people feel respected, have choice, feel safe, and ultimately feel they are being treated as humans not just criminals.
It also has powerful learning for artists that might want to or already do work within such environments and that it can support their own creative development and offer greater insights into the human condition. It is also clearly an emotional, physical, and psychologically challenging environment and so those involved in such work need to focus on their own well-being and use peer support.
The Creative Roots team would like to thank the Arts Council for Wales and G4S for the funding of this project and the brilliant rehabilitation team of Mike Vigar, Caryl Watkins, and Jenni Clifford. We are so thankful we have been able to deliver such a powerful project to the men who engaged with the project who live at Parc Prison. Indeed, we give our deepest thanks to the inspiring, creative, and committed men who engaged with this project and created such beautiful art and with who we had such powerful conversations.