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Singing the same tune: arts in criminal justice settings championed across government departments – By Alison Frater and Jessica Plant

Singing the same tune: arts in criminal justice settings championed across government departments – By Alison Frater and Jessica Plant

Singing the same tune: arts in criminal justice settings championed across government departments – By Alison Frater and Jessica Plant

Unlocking Potential – a review of education in prison, the much-anticipated report by Dame Sally Coates, was published on Wednesday 18th May as a prelude to the Queen’s speech, which announced new freedoms for prison governors to reform jails in England.

The National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice is enormously encouraged and (cautiously) optimistic about Dame Sally Coates’ progressive review, which puts education at the heart of rehabilitation. A central tenet of the report is a recognition of the role arts can play in prison education and specifically the power art has to engage new learners and transform lives. Championing the arts, Dame Sally Coates’ review states: ‘Prison education should include greater provision of high quality arts provision’. The report also brings opportunities and challenges for the whole voluntary sector, which Clinks’ Policy Officer Nicola Drinkwater explores in more detail in her blog.

A greater role for the arts

At the launch event at the Centre for Social Justice on Thursday 19th May, Dame Sally highlighted her recommendations about expanding arts provision in prisons stating “Arts play a critical part in building self confidence and self worth” and are “currently underutilised despite often being the one thing that really works”. The Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove also commented on his commitment to the arts, expressing his admiration for the talent harnessed by the work of the Koestler Trust. He stated that he was united with Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport John Whittingdale and Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey’s vision to ensure arts and culture feature in criminal justice settings and that he was instrumental in its inclusion in the recent Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) ‘Culture White Paper’.

The Coates Review recommends a greater role for the arts, music and sport to foster a learning culture and a holistic approach throughout prison rehabilitation. The National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice welcomes the report’s attention to quality provision, which chimes with our mission to drive excellence and innovation through the arts in the Criminal Justice System.

When carrying out her review Dame Sally clearly witnessed arts organisations working in prisons as a vital catalyst for change, pointing to a vivid and lasting impact on prisoners, governors and staff. The reports states:

The provision of art, drama and music courses is not a core part of current arrangements. Where they do operate, and where there have been one-off projects or performances with visiting arts companies, they are often the first thing that prisoners, staff and Governors tell me about. The arts are one route towards engaging prisoners when they have had negative experience of traditional classroom subjects, or struggle with self-esteem and communication. They can be the first step towards building confidence for more formal learning”

These observations and recommendations echo findings from the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice’s well respected online Evidence Library, which points to the unique ability of creative learning to foster growth and change with hard-to-reach people. Additionally, letters received by the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice from prisoners illustrate the profound effect engaging with the arts can have on unleashing previously untapped human potential:

There’s no doubt that creative writing has made me a calmer more reflective person, whereas before I was more impulsive, which is part of the reason I got into trouble in the first place.”

Complementing this review of prison education and the Prime Minister’s speech in February, which urged us all to see prisoners as potential assets in society, the first Culture White Paper in 60 years was published in March 2016, setting out its support for the arts in criminal justice settings. The Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey attended our Annual Meeting at the National Theatre in March 2016 and expressed recognition of the dynamic and necessary role arts and culture can play in transforming individual lives and communities. The White Paper states:

There are also many good examples of how cultural interventions can benefit prisoners, ex-offenders and people at risk of becoming involved in crime. Culture can help to improve self-esteem, social skills and wellbeing: all of which helps to reduce the risk of offending and re-offending and make our communities safer. We will work with Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other partners to ensure that offenders and those at risk continue to benefit from cultural opportunities.”

Missed opportunities

The arts in criminal justice have been held by some parts of the media as inappropriate; a treat, something undeserved by people who have committed crimes. As a result there have been missed opportunities to improve outcomes and reduce reoffending. In fact, arts interventions are hard work – they require focus, concentration, and commitment. Arts interventions build an ethos of team working, motivation to achieve goals and develop new skills. Public opinion was far from outraged over the prospect of books being removed from prisons and these new government initiatives can set the pace for change.  Art and culture can and does change individuals and communities for the better.

The National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice will work to support the public understanding of offenders working with arts organisations to build broader and bigger audiences – communities that are prepared to give people a helping hand, and a second chance. Arts organisations will continue to foster relationships with children and families to build support and provide ongoing help and guidance through and beyond the gate, continuity, recovery, and rehabilitation.

The work begins

The National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice and its 800 members welcome this joined up, cross-departmental initiative and will work with ministers to optimise the transforming impact of the arts to bring about the much needed step change in rehabilitation. We will do this by providing prison governors with briefings on best practice when commissioning arts organisations and by advising on co-production with the health and education sectors to build engagement with the arts and improve health and learning outcomes, especially for those from BAME communities who are disproportionately represented in the Criminal Justice System.

The evidence is clear

The evidence on what works to reduce reoffending is clear. People need skills to overcome adverse influences and build pro-social networks. They need to be motivated to set and achieve positive goals, and need emotional management skills to develop a non-criminal identity and prosocial attitudes. These are precisely the attributes the arts provide. Arts foster reflective individuals, as documented in a recent research report by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) on Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture, which looked at why the arts in particular can enable people to develop and change in an otherwise harsh prison.

Whilst the Queen’s speech was being delivered last Wednesday, a couple of miles away at the inspirational Design Against Crime unit based at Central St Martins art college, 18 individuals from innovative arts companies such as Geese Theatre, Good Vibrations, Stretch Charity and Clean Break sat down together to plan a strategy for how best to respond to this new unprecedented recognition of the transforming power of the arts. These organisations have been driving equality through the arts for over 30 years in the Criminal Justice System, it’s about time that they were welcomed and championed by the government departments whose outcomes they deliver with passion and energy. They know how to unlock potential. They inspire – enabling those with little or no voice to be heard, seen and understood through art, music, literature, film and dance.

These organisations have hitherto been hidden and denied praise. It really does feel like a new day.

By Alison Frater
Chair of the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice


Jessica Plant
Manager of the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice

Image courtesy of Geese Theatre Company