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The future’s bright

We all know the importance of creativity in our own lives. But how can the power of music, art, dance and drama transform the lives of those who are in prison? The ISM’s Francesca Treadaway speaks to Sally Taylor, Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust and Sara Lee, Artistic Director of the Irene Taylor Trust to find out how their work changes lives for the better.

‘We get letters from people saying how creating their art for the Koestler Trust has made such a big impression. We had a letter from somebody inside – a long term prisoner – telling us what an impact we have made. He ended with, ‘when you’re having a bad day, remember this letter.’ And you think, this guy is inside and he is telling ME to remember this letter when I am having a bad day!’

The situation in prisons in this country has never been worse: overcrowded with reoffenders, drug abuse and other crises plaguing the system. Several organisations facilitate opportunities for those detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure and otherwise. I have spoken to two organisations in particular: The Koestler Trust and the Irene Taylor Trust, who are best known for their Music in Prisons programme to find out more about the effect of their work.

‘Some people do wonder why we are doing this ‘for the dredges of society’’, Sally Taylor, Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust explains. ‘When Michael Gove got the title of Secretary of State for Justice, people were wondering what would happen as his predecessor was completely unsupportive and banned books from going into prisons. But Gove understood very quickly that if staffing in prisons decreased – 29% over the past few years yet the prison population hasn’t gone down – how do you get people to stop reoffending? We feel that the best way to get the reoffending rate down is to educate them while they are inside.’

Paranoid Coat with Shark, HMP Dovegate, Sarah Lucas Platinum Award for Ceramics
Sally, a year into her appointment as Chief Executive, now heads up the dream of extraordinary thinker, philosopher and writer Arthur Koestler, who successfully campaigned against the death penalty, founded the Koestler Trust in 1962. His idea was to give offenders something to occupy their minds – and as far as he was concerned, the way to do so was to be creative.

The organisation is the best-known prison arts charity and has been awarding, exhibiting and selling artworks by offenders, detainees and secure patients for 50 years. They receive thousands of entries for 52 categories of Fine Art, Craft and Design, Performance and Audio, Film and Animation and Writing. Every participant receives a participation certificate, which they can take to the parole board as part of their rehabilitation progress, and there are Platinum, Gold and Bronze awards with small cash prizes for the best entries in each category.

After 11 years teaching music at Wormwood Scrubs, Sara Lee, Artistic Director at the Irene Taylor Trust, was awarded a Butler Trust Award (‘awarded to anyone in the prison service for ‘ordinary work extraordinarily well done’’, she tells me) by the prison, with Irene Taylor on the panel. After Irene’s passing, her family approached Sara to set up the Trust in her memory and to continue bringing music to those in prison. This year is the Trust’s 21st anniversary.

Both have had several reports detailing the positive impact of their work. A report into the Koestler’s Trust mentoring programme for those who want to pursue their art on release and are matched up with practising artist as a mentor in 2014, (Dr Leonidas Cheliotis, London School of Economics, 2014) found that there were long-term positive effects on the mentored offenders, especially ‘pro-social attitudes’ that reduce the likelihood of reoffending. Unemployment among the sample group fell from 50% to 33% and only 14% were known to have reoffended or been recalled to prison during or since their arts mentoring.

But it is not a linear relationship, Sally tells me. ‘It isn’t a case of an inmate entering the Koestler Trust and then never robbing a bank again. But there is a much more nuanced way of looking at it, which is if people start to do art, they start doing it in their cells or they go into the education wings. It tends to be a way of getting people into the education part of the prison or to become involved in positive teamwork and socialisation.’

‘We want to help people through their sentences and help people think differently about where they are going to in the future; how they can contribute, and what talent that they have. We get lots of letters saying ‘I never thought I was talented – nobody thought I was any good, and the fact I have won an award is a really big deal.’

Key findings in the Irene Taylor Trust’s evaluation by the University of Cambridge (Beats and Bars: Music in Prisons, An Evaluation A Cox and L Gelsthorpe, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, 2008) included a reduction in prison adjudications both during and after the project and an increase in confidence to participate in other educational programmes.

‘We monitor our projects for funders and our own learning,’ Sara tells me. ‘We are a charity and we don’t receive any money from the Government so it’s important that we monitor and evaluate all the work that we do. On a week-long project, we would ask the participants to fill in questionnaires at the beginning, at the end, and a few weeks after the project, to allow us to chart any changes. The project team also keep a diary from which we can compile case studies of how things have developed over the week. We get prison staff feedback and audience feedback when we can and all of that is collated. From that you can come up with figures say, ‘over 2014/15, 160 prisoners said that their confidence had improved over a project’ and so on. We also get extraordinary letters from participants, sometimes years after taking part, telling us how important a project was to them. One recently described it as “a cup of hope”.’

Birds Arbury Court (Secure Mental Health Unit) Partnerships in Care Women in Secure Hospitals Platinum Award for Painting

Sally showed me around the Koestler Trust’s HQ, located on the outskirts of Wormwood Scrubs (‘The Scrubs’ as it is better known) which features room after room fit-to-burst with the most vibrant, interesting, occasionally disturbing and downright humbling creations of the inmates from prisons, mental hospitals and immigration services up and down the UK. The deadline for submissions for the upcoming Koestler Trust Awards exhibition had just passed and the team at the Trust have been tasked with checking, labelling and recording every single piece of art, poetry, compositions and a wealth of other creative materials – thousands of them. The piece that takes my breath away is a 6ft clock, made entirely out of matchsticks. Resources are evidently limited in prisons but they can purchase a small amount from the prison canteen. ‘Last year, we had nearly 8,500 entries from over 350 establishments and it is quite an undertaking – I think there is more this year!’ Sally laughs.

The Music in Prisons programme sees a team of three musicians go into prisons across the country, meeting a group of 10-12 participants who will not necessarily have played any music before but will all love music.

Sara tells me that they have a week-long process working with these participants, who are there on a voluntary basis. The initial take-up when the scheme is advertised is large, ‘but there are things that prisoners do on a day to day basis that may mean they can’t come for a whole week – they have to work, they have visits, education sessions – anything that can impact on turning up every day,’ she explains.

At the end of the week, the group unveil the work they have written together as a group. ‘The influences would have come from what the group wants to play and what they want to do,’ Sara describes. ‘We teach the instruments and we write songs with them and we perform to other prisoners and staff and we record it – we give the recordings to them as a thank you and make spares for them to send to their families and friends so they can keep positive links going.’

Sally also ensures that families of the participants are also involved in their work. ‘Family is really important for offenders, so we have family days around our exhibitions and we pay for families of the artists to come to the show. The artists for the most part cannot come themselves – some of them can come by means of day release or if they are accompanied, but that is a very small number, and some of them may have been released since they did their art.’

Both organisations ensure that there is lasting impact with their work by offering mentoring and ongoing support. Music in Prisons, Sara explains, has installed musicians in residence in various prisons across the country. Their brief is to work on a weekly basis with offenders in order to keep the effect of the week-long project going. ‘At the end of the week, inmates who have really enjoyed the experience say ‘what’s next then?’’ The Sounding Out programme provides these additional musical and training opportunities for former prisoners on release in the community.

Sally tells me that inmates often ask for mentoring on release. ‘If there are particular people we have spotted during their involvement with the Koestler Trust or if they come to us and ask to be mentored then we will find someone who can support them. They want to use their art as a way back in to a society that is different to the one they have left.’ The Koestler Trust also helps ex-offenders with employment in the arts, and gives ex-offenders hosting opportunities at their annual awards exhibition. ‘Five out of the six hosts we had this year applied for jobs at the Southbank Centre post-exhibition and they all got one,’ Sally tells me, proudly.

As I saw when I approached Wormwood Scrubs on my way to the Koestler Trust, when inmates leave prison, they leave with £46 and a clear plastic bag of the belongings in which they went in with. With organisations like the Irene Taylor Trust and the Koestler Trust working tirelessly to break the cycle – ‘60% of children with a parent in prison will end up in prison themselves’, Sally tells me – inmates have the opportunity to leave armed with the skills and confidence to create a much brighter future.

Francesca Treadaway, Communications Manager, ISM

Main image: My Dream, HMP Shotts, Frederick Davies Highly Commended Award for Painting.