From the Spring 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
Bringing art to Britain’s prisons can help change attitudes, both inside and outside these institutions
British prisons are at breaking point, with almost 100,000 prisoners in the UK compared to 68,000 in France, which has a larger population. In addition, over half those serving sentences of less than 12 months are reconvicted within a year, according to Ministry of Justice figures from 2013. Yet the shrill political debate around crime remains as dominated as ever by notions of toughness and hard-line approaches. As Stephen Chambers RA says, “There are certainly no votes in prison reform.”
Chambers is a trustee of the Koestler Trust, the charity which, through exhibitions and an awards programme, encourages offenders to create art as a way of making positive changes in their lives. Former RA president Sir Hugh Casson was a key figure in establishing the Trust in 1962. “No other country in the world has an arts award scheme open to all its prisoners, or a programme of exhibitions to get that work shown to the public,” says Tim Robertson, the Trust’s outgoing chief executive. “And Casson’s great achievement was to engage the top level of arts people.” His legacy is clear in that leading artists such as Sarah Lucas and Grayson Perry RA are still getting involved in Koestler projects.
The arts can make a tremendous difference to offenders, Robertson explains, in terms of literacy and numeracy but also what he calls emotional literacy. “To create artistically, you have to get some perspective on your own emotional situation and connections and relationships – and, perhaps almost more importantly than that, to communicate it to other people.” Art also offers “a sense of hope and possibility”, he adds.
Offering prisoners a different outlook is vital. “I can’t recall who said it,” says Chambers, “but it’s a line I’ve borrowed over the years with regard to prisons: ‘Making art is the only way you can run away from home without leaving the room.’”
But giving prisoners hope is only part of the battle. “The closest thing to a political dimension for us, though it’s not explicitly political, is that we know that for offenders to rehabilitate, it’s not just the offenders that need to change, but also society’s attitudes towards them,” Robertson says. The Trust’s statistics are impressive: more than 8,000 prisoners enter the Koestler Awards, from over 300 different institutions, and 20,000 people visit the exhibitions, held at the Southbank Centre in London and around the UK every year. In a 2013 survey taken in Cardiff, 55 per cent of people interviewed said that the exhibition had given them a more positive attitude towards offenders. As Robertson says, “You can’t come through a Koestler exhibition of art by offenders and not a) realise that offenders are human beings and b) think, ‘Wow, some of these people have got skill and talent.’”