Louise Ridley looks at the research indicating that arts projects can encourage prisoners to take part in formal rehabilitation programmes.

Image of painting

Encouraging prisoners to engage in formal rehabilitation programmes can be challenging. Some prisoners are sceptical, unwilling to look at or acknowledge their own behaviour, and many are fearful of criticism. Giving prisoners the chance to take part in arts projects helps to break down this barrier, providing a safe and creative environment in which to learn tolerance, understanding and, above all, the value of rehabilitation. The fact that we have seen some outstanding pieces of artwork created and exhibited as a result of these activities is a circumstantial benefit.

Many prisoners have never allowed themselves to be vulnerable before, and accepting criticism is a tough step to take. Within the arts setting, prisoners place pride in their work and learn to tolerate each other as people and as fellow critics. The same group of participants will meet regularly, encouraging familiarity, trust and respect. They also learn from each other, mentoring each other as their arts projects progress. The self-respect that is generated when prisoners unearth their own creative talent is incredibly valuable.

Just as he was about to tear up his cell and everything in it, he noticed his artworks hanging on the walls and stopped

One participant we worked with struggled to control his violent temperament. His natural response to confrontations or problems was to unleash this violence, and he would often trash his cell as an outlet for his rage. On one such occasion, just as he was about to tear up his cell and everything in it, he noticed his artworks hanging on the walls and stopped. He described it as a pivotal moment in his life. He realised just how much time and effort he had put into creating them and saw the value in them, and in himself. It made him reflect on his behaviour and think about what it was that made him behave violently in the first place.

Learning tolerance and analysing your own behaviour is a hugely positive step towards rehabilitation. Another participant said he would never have joined a formal rehabilitation programme if he hadn’t taken part in his art classes. He was concerned that he was unable to tolerate people which discouraged him from attending longer-term programmes. Art classes, however, taught him that tolerance was in fact a possibility, and something that he could achieve. He has since taken part in a structured rehabilitation course.

In criminology, we talk about primary and secondary desistence. Primary desistance is about taking direct action to analyse your behaviour and learning how to stop re-offending. Secondary desistance is where arts projects come in. They are the first stepping stone to desistance, encouraging people to attempt rehabilitation programmes in the first place and showing them that it is possible to make positive changes.

The research that I undertook alongside colleagues at Northumbria and Bath Spa universities analysed the outcomes of a range of creative activities – from visual arts and writing, to music making and DJing. The findings clearly indicated that arts projects can contribute to an individual’s journey to rehabilitation, which not only improves their lives but also the lives of their families and the communities in which they live.

One participant said: “Taking part in music workshops was life-changing. It was the first time that I started to make positive choices for myself. It began to change the way I think in a very deep way.”

Louise Ridley is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University.

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