Across the UK and US the prison arts community is forming a transatlantic network. Becky Mer examines the ins and outs
In our increasingly globalised world, historically isolated communities are building collective power through social networking. Confined groups are able to reach previously inaccessible audiences, their members interacting with well-established communities. Transatlantic prison arts networking represents one such case, as imprisoned artists and prison arts practitioners advance new forms of Anglo-American relations.
Although artistic expression in prison is not new, networking within the prison arts community is distinctly modern. In the second half of the twentieth century, visionary individuals in the UK and USA began linking creative activity across prisons. In 1962 Arthur Koestler established an annual arts competition, to award outstanding work “by those physically confined” in the UK. In the early 1990s Anne Peaker and Jill Vincent created The Unit for the Arts and Offenders to pioneer research, advocacy and training. In the same decade the Writers in Prison Network Ltd was launched by Arts Council England and the Home Office. Across the pond, the California State Legislature created the first state-wide Arts-in-Corrections programme in 1981, and nine years later Buzz Alexander founded the Prison Creative Arts Project to support programming across Michigan. More recently, in 2008 the Arts Alliance began formalising networking within England and Wales and, in the same year, the Prison Arts Coalition set about organising information and resources within the USA. And in 2011 the Scottish Prison Arts Network launched as a new forum for discussion.
How do these national networks converge? Although there is no formal transatlantic prison arts network, earnest informal exchange has taken place for decades. As an American prison arts researcher in the UK, I quickly discovered the web of Brits who have visited or worked in US programmes and the similarly active group of Americans who have practiced or studied prison arts in the UK. Within this albeit informal context, there are notable benefits and limits to transatlantic prison arts networking.
BENEFICIALLY, NETWORKING ALLOWS FOR:
Shared context: Imprisoned artists and prison arts practitioners in the UK and USA experience similar trends in criminal justice, including rising incarceration rates and economic austerity measures. Ignoring accents, idioms and spelling, both share a common language and vocabulary to describe the goals of prison arts, in terms of rehabilitation, recidivism and re-entry.
Exchange: By exchanging best practice and methods to overcome challenges, US and British prison arts programmes can avoid reinventing the wheel or repeating mistakes.
Collaboration: Arts programmes can form partnerships across British and US prisons, such as writing exchanges between imprisoned artists. Prison arts practitioners and teachers can cross-fertilise by applying new practices from the other country and hosting guest artists from abroad.
HOWEVER, NETWORKING IS LIMITED BY:
Prison systems: Neither the UK nor USA operates one national prison service. British prison arts programmes are often shared between the National Offender Management Service of England and Wales, the Scottish Prison Service and the Northern Ireland Prison Service. US programmes are often split to an even greater extent across 50 Departments of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Considering additional systems of immigration detention and secure medical facilities in both countries, any cross-systemic transatlantic networking can appear understandably daunting.
Funding: Transatlantic prison arts networking is not a priority for most prisons or funders in the UK and USA. Although some success has come through individual grants and university research, this approach does not offer the sustainability required to become widespread.
Participant access: Networking across an ocean may be accessible only to funded researchers, practitioners outside prison and individuals with access to the Internet. As imprisoned artists are the engines of the work, transatlantic networks must consider creative methods of communication.
Participant incentives: Although many imprisoned artists are interested in the arts regardless of incentives, some Brits are incentivised to attend programmes by financial compensation or arts qualifications, which are not usually available in the USA. Some Americans are incentivised by ‘good time’ off their sentence, which is not usually available in the UK. Within a transatlantic network, a British model of full-time paid art class, leading to qualifications may not export well to the USA.
Volunteers: Although prison arts programmes in both countries rely on a combination of paid professionals and volunteers, the UK relies more heavily on the former and the USA on the latter. As practitioners in each country place different levels of trust in volunteers, programme structures may be less applicable across borders.
Given the benefits and limits of this work, transatlantic prison arts networking may be best achieved through strengthened national networks or a new global network. By developing national capacity, networks like the Arts Alliance and Prison Arts Coalition can work in conjunction with one another. By creating an international prison arts network all stakeholders, including practitioners, artists and prison staff, could feel included within a unified community and collectively lobby for change.
Becky Mer is a Policy Consultant at OpenDoors and Administrator at Prison Arts Coalition. Recipient of the 2010–2011 David J. Zucconi ‘55 Fellowship for International Study, she undertook research on arts in British prisons and published Arts in Prison: Lessons from the United Kingdom in 2011. W www.theprisonartscoalition.com www.opendoorsri.org E email@example.com