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Arts organisations have worked quietly behind prison walls for decades, but recent government endorsement and high-profile partnerships are helping them gain some recognition, says Dora Dixon.

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At the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) our aim is to ensure the arts are used within the criminal justice system as a springboard for positive change. Research that can be viewed on our Evidence Library website consistently demonstrates that our members’ work enables people to move forward in their lives and engage positively with society.

It’s important to explore the opportunities for ‘normalising’ cultural activities for prisoners and pathways to education and employment through the arts

Our sector is not a simple one to work in. The Ministry of Justice is on its fifth Secretary of State in less than three years and we have endured ongoing and significant changes to both the probation and prison systems. Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have shaken up probation contracts and cuts to arts budgets have put pressure on arts organisations working in criminal justice settings. In addition, concerns of overcrowding and staff shortages in prisons have been well documented.

Support for education

Still, our 800 members continue to create real change and its value to government was highlighted in 2016 in the DCMS’ Culture White Paper and in Unlocking Potential, the review into prison education. Arts interventions are now one of the expectations set out by HM Inspectorate of Prisons in its online publication and changes in the commissioning framework enable art to be included in educational curriculums.

There has been mainstream support too. Edmund Clark, who has been Ikon’s artist-in-residence at HMP Grendon since 2014, is currently exhibiting at the Birmingham gallery as a culmination of his work with prisoners. Most recently, our Vice-Chair, Geese Theatre’s Andy Watson, has received an MBE for services to arts in the criminal justice system in the recent New Year’s honours list.

New priorities

So what’s next for arts in criminal justice?

Last year, the Lammy Review revealed the racial inequality in our criminal justice system and a poor response to the needs and outcomes for Black and minority ethnic (BAME) people. Odd Arts is one example of an organisation using the arts to approach these issues. Its ‘Isolation to Radicalisation’ project uses performance art with young people of largely ethnic minority backgrounds in vulnerable communities in Manchester, encouraging conversations and challenging the stereotype and promotion of extremist views.

Looking forward, the NCJAA will work with members to embrace diverse influences and adopt the review’s recommendations around transparency, leadership and addressing complex needs.

It is important to assert the benefits of embedding cultural activities in criminal justice settings, and the pathways this provides to education and employment. We are also seeing an increasing enthusiasm for partnerships between our specialist member organisations and mainstream cultural organisations, such as Synergy Theatre Company and Theatre503 with the V&A, Music in Prisons with The Royal Opera House, and Clean Break with Donmar Warehouse.

Although digital technology has transformed the way we interact with art, limited access to this within prisons is creating a capability divide for both staff and prisoners. In collaboration with the University of Cambridge’s Loraine Gelsthorpe and Caroline Lanskey, we are embarking on Inspiring Futures, a research project delivering arts interventions at a scale large enough to strengthen our understanding of how to broaden audiences and deliver for a range of outcomes.

The project includes an open-source app that will capture the user experience across a variety of formats and involve participants in technological innovation. It will be the largest project of its kind and could help bring about a measureable change in both the credibility and reach of our work.

While those in the sector have known the value of their work for a long time – the Koestler Trust has been holding arts awards for prisoners since 1962 – the recent increase in recognition will have a positive influence on a practice that is so often hidden. For our members, there will be more of the same: delivering arts interventions with remarkable results.

Dora Dixon is Communications and Membership Officer for the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance.
Tw: @ArtsCJS

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