Working in prisons and other challenging environments is, well, challenging. Hannah Hull argues for the importance of thinking critically about what you are doing and why.


Christine Cellier

Artists and arts practitioners might want to work in prisons for many different reasons. Some will identify the Criminal Justice System as fertile ground to explore extreme subject matters. Others will be politically driven, and want to change the way we live in the world. And some will simply want to teach the artform they are passionate about in a challenging context.

Whatever the reason, ideas are often difficult to realise within the confusing and complex territory of a prison. Whether one believes in radical solutions to crime or old-fashioned retribution, it is important to understand your critical position and rationale for working in this area well in advance of approaching a prison for work. A practice that is advisable before undertaking work in any challenging environment.

I am currently developing one module of the Cred-Ability training programme for delivering arts courses in prisons. My module will focus on helping individuals to identify their critical position and where they would be best placed to realise their aims. The module will inform participants about the level and type of support they can expect from both the prison service and prisons; provide guidance on how to navigate the prison system; and advise on ways to instil critical thought in prisoners, both during and beyond the time-frame of an intervention. I thought it might be useful – for me and for readers – to publish an outline of some of the key points of the module.

it is important to understand your critical position and rationale for working in this area

In line with the low priority that art is granted nationally, it is often not seen as a priority in prisons, outside of already established programmes. However, there are ways to increase your chances of obtaining work via the established education service within prisons. Simply re-languaging your approach or reworking your course to include literacy and numeric tasks can be effective. For example, teaching fluxus cut-up technique could be described as a creative writing exercise. Alternatively, accrediting a course can give it weight within the prison system. If done cleverly, it is possible to accredit an art course without compromising its creative aims. My training module will encourage students to fully develop their course in-line with their own ethos, before referring to accreditation methods. It is surprising how flexible formalising a course can be. It is not necessary to have a teaching qualification to deliver accredited courses, as long as you or your organisation has the funding to pay for the accreditation and marking of the course.

However, when creative ideas are particularly ambitious and complex, sometimes it is not possible to tweak them to fit into existing models of prisoner education. In such cases a longer term strategy for developing a trusting relationship with the prison is needed. In Mark Storor’s case, it took three years to realise 'a tender subject', a performance piece exploring homosexuality and tenderness that was developed in prisons by prisoners. His controversial idea was initially rejected by the prison service who told him that there were no gay prisoners – an ignorant and statistically impossible statement. Once developed with current prisoners, the piece was performed outside of the prison to a public audience with a cast of ex-offenders and current prison officers. A major achievement of this project is that both these groups volunteered their time to work together to realise the piece.

If a practitioner’s approach is highly critical of the prison service, rather than working directly within prisons, it may be best to develop a stronger lobbying position by working with ex-offenders and prison charities. Silvia Battista avoided seeking approval from prisons entirely, by contacting prisoners directly through a letter-writing charity and arranging to visit them during visiting hours, during which her art interventions took place. This extreme tactic had severe repercussions and difficult ethical implications, yet also produced a series of extraordinary pieces of art. These works, which form the series 'A Message Before Leaving', see a series of slogans superimposed onto images of removed graffiti. These new messages were dictated by a prisoner held on Death Row in Texas, whom Battista perceives as in limbo, partially 'deleted' from society. The prisoner has since been executed.

Critical thinking is especially important in the politically loaded environment of a prison. Your own critical awareness must extend to the entire chain that allows your arts activity to take place. How do you ensure you remain independent whilst negotiating this complex terrain? Who are your allies, and on what basis? What exactly are the limitations on your own and the prisoners' ideas? Is the integrity of creative work compromised when it becomes an instrument of prisoner education, and, if it is, how would you be able to tell?

Hannah Hull is an Artist and Researcher

Cred-Ability will be running a free introductory training day on 4 July in London. To find out more and register your interest, visit the website.

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