Jessica Plant and Kate Davey argue that arts interventions in the criminal justice system have demonstrated positive outcomes, but longitudinal research is now needed.

Photo of musicians

Owen Richards, courtesy of Koestler Trust

The Arts Alliance, the national body for promoting arts in the criminal justice system, is a coalition of artists and organisations in the arts and criminal justice sectors who work with prisoners, those on probation and ex-offenders in the community. Our members work across all artforms − music, performance, visual arts, photography, film and creative writing – to develop offenders’ skills and confidence and awaken an interest in learning and self-discovery.

In November 2013 we published a research project 'Re-Imagining Futures: exploring arts interventions and the process of desistance' which explored the impact of arts interventions on offenders in prison and in the community. ‘Desistance’ is a theory developed by criminologists, including Professors Shadd Maruna and Fergus McNeill, that describes the process by which those who have offended stop offending (primary desistance) and then take on a personal narrative that supports a continuing non-offending lifestyle (secondary desistance).

There needs to be a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures to ensure all positive outcomes are captured

Our research suggests that there are strong reasons to consider the arts as an area of great significance in relation to desistance crime. Employing a qualitative method, the research team from Northumbria and Bath Spa universities investigated five arts projects in four criminal justice settings: practising visual arts in a high-security, adult, male prison; music and deejaying skills with young offenders in the community; a music-making project in a resettlement (open) prison; and creative writing and bookbinding in a closed, female prison. The research demonstrates how taking part in an arts activity impacts on participants' personal agency, helps to build positive relationships with staff and family members, and enables compliance with sentences and prison regimes.

The research project makes recommendations for different sections of the criminal justice system regarding arts provision. For arts organisations the research recommends a focus on support, development and the celebration of success, with a clear idea of how the intervention might impact on primary or secondary desistance. It also notes that arts organisations need to be responsive to individuals’ needs, collect demographic information and thoroughly evaluate each intervention.

The report also emphasises that government policy needs to understand that the soft outcomes that arts projects promote are not necessarily best measured by quantifiable change. There needs to be a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures to ensure that all positive outcomes are captured.

Finally, the research prompts us to consider the benefit of ‘art for art’s sake’. This is often a difficult argument to make in the criminal justice system due to the unreceptiveness of the idea that prisoners might be able to enjoy some experiences during their sentence. However, the sense expressed by most participants in the research, in particular those taking part in the art classes, is that these sessions bring positive change, accompanied by the view that this is time spent doing something absorbing, engaging and ultimately enjoyable. The creative activities used in the research allow participants to explore new experiences in a safe, trusting and non-judgemental environment. In each project participants comment positively on being encouraged by professionals they respect to do something emotionally risky. One participant says: “I would be lost without art, back in the system.”

Encouragingly, the Government and other reports in this area have also acknowledged that the arts have a role to play in the criminal justice system. One example is the Department for Business Innovation & Skills paper 'Making Prisons Work: Skills for Rehabilitation'. And more recently, the National Offender Management Service commissioned a report called 'Intermediate outcomes of arts projects: a rapid evidence assessment', which suggests that arts projects can “help to foster a new way of seeing oneself and others” and play a role in “improving relationships between offenders and staff”. However, the paper concludes that much more evidence is required to support the claims of positive outcomes from arts projects. The Ministry of Justice has also set up the Justice Data Lab, which provides reconviction data for third-sector organisations (such as arts organisations) to enable them to compare their outcomes data with a control group. The data set submitted by the Prisoner Education Trust (which delivers a range of distant learning and non-accredited courses) suggests that its input can reduce reoffending by over a quarter compared to a matched control group. Most relevantly, grants made for arts materials had positive results, a rate of 27% compared with 34% reoffending rate.

There is now a clear need for longitudinal research, combining both qualitative and quantitative methods to assess how far these findings are sustained in the long term. ‘Inspiring Futures’, our proposal for a long-term research project to do just this, aims to bring about a step-change in both the credibility and the reach of arts projects within the criminal justice system. Through such a multi-faceted project and the delivery of innovative artistic collaborations we aim to enable lasting change in criminal justice and arts policy, ensuring sustainable arts interventions for offenders. The proposed programme will help us further understand how and in what way arts interventions can contribute to offenders’ lives and the wider community. With unprecedented levels of change currently taking place across the criminal justice system as the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation agenda takes hold, this challenge just got even tougher.

Jessica Plant is Manager and Kate Davey is Communications and Administrative Assistant at Arts Alliance.

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