How can Arts Council England do more to include the voices of people with experience of the criminal justice system? The National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance talks to artist and former prisoner Erika Flowers.
Arts Council England (ACE) has long argued that art should belong to everybody. Creative projects can help us understand other people and their experiences in a powerful way. In its Creative Case for Diversity ACE explains why embracing diverse influences not only elevates the work of our artists and arts organisations, but is the key to future success and sustainability for the sector.
“People need to be opened up to future opportunities rather than be deprived of them and should be encouraged to explore them on release”
But how do we advise ACE so its next ten-year strategy Shaping the next ten years reflects this, and what more can be done to champion arts and culture at the margins of society?
Erika Flowers told us how her art enabled her to cope with the prison experience – and what she thinks ACE should do to widen opportunities for people whilst in prison and upon release.
Erika began drawing a daily postcard diary whilst on bail. Throughout her custodial sentence the diary became a way of depicting a world and way of life that few people get to see or experience. She was involved in artistic activities in prison, but found that staff shortages, lack of materials and prison restrictions meant it was challenging to complete activities and progress effectively.
She witnessed at first hand the calming and positive impact artistic activities had on her and her fellow prisoners, and wonders what more can be done to support creative endeavours in prison so that those people needing an outlet and opportunity can express themselves. This is echoed by Justice Data Lab research that found an intervention as simple as providing arts materials in cells can have a significant impact on reducing reoffending. It is further backed up by ACE’s recently published summary of evidence from the health and criminal justice sectors, which we welcome as a mark of its growing support for wider social benefits of creative practice.
Erika told us about the importance of external charities and arts organisations coming into prison: “I remember reading clubs coming on to the landings and the Women’s Institute coming in to demonstrate and participate in craft skills. People need to be opened up to future opportunities rather than be deprived of them and should be encouraged to explore them on release.”
Erika explained how competitions run by Women in Prison and ACE-supported The Koestler Trust gave her direction and focus and a sense of pride and joy when she received recognition and awards for her work. With the prison system facing significant challenges, such as staff shortages and rising levels of substance misuse, violence, self-harm and suicide, and with arts and education resources stretched, external charities and arts organisations can be a lifeline for many people.
Following her release, Erika now goes back to prison to support others to develop their artistic skills. She is a lead artist with the organisation It’s Not Your Birthday But… involved in a multi-discipline programme at Feltham Young Offenders Institute. The programme combines drama, music, writing and visual arts. Word has spread of its success and there is now a long waiting list of young people wanting to take part.
Erika explained: “I have seen the learners come out of their shell and enjoy trying new skills they had never even considered or known about before. They use the classes to explore themselves and what they might like to do upon release, and it is great to see them grow in confidence with the foundation and beginnings of new skills.”
We asked Erika how ACE might be able to support creative practice in prisons. She wants to see more opportunities to support people at different levels and more varied programmes to help unlock the talent that exists across the prison estate. “Consideration needs to be applied to and tailored to suit all sentence lengths. Different artforms need to be integrated effectively. Artist-in-residence schemes, digital and ceramic programmes can all have an impact. It is worth noting that certificates of participation are often just as good as low-level qualifications.”
Erika’s story illustrates how skills learned in prison can lead to future employment in the creative sector. She believes more people should have opportunities in prison that will help them to successfully transition back into the community and into paid work on release.
The Ministry of Justice’s recently published education and employment strategy wants to see an increased use of release on temporary licence (ROTL) to support people into employment on release. Erika suggests that ACE could use its influence to drive more arts and cultural organisations to look to the criminal justice system as a talent pool of people willing to work and keen to prove themselves in their new lives.
We are working with the Department of Digital, Culture Media and Sport, Ministry of Justice and ACE to think about how to encourage arts, culture and creative employers to sign up to Ban the Box, a campaign that seeks to remove barriers to employment for people with criminal records, and to put in place appropriate HR policies to encourage and support people with criminal records to apply for roles in the arts sector.
Erika and others working in arts and criminal justice believe that their work has the ability to change society through creativity and culture. The participants and audiences of their work can make a significant contribution to delivering ACE’s vision so that by 2030 “significantly more people have developed their creativity” and “people from every background benefit from public investment in culture”.
Unlocking creative work and stories from within the criminal justice system is challenging and specialist support and advocacy is needed, but the rewards can be huge. We encourage ACE to be brave and ambitious in its strategy to reap these rewards, and help more artists like Erika to flourish.
The consultation on ACE's ten-year strategy is open until 2 January. The National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance encourages everyone working in the arts to respond and to consider work across broader social outcomes and in criminal justice settings when they do so. See guidance on how to respond here.