The importance of arts for prison education

kirstncutFor me, the comment below emailed to me by an art teacher about one of his students sums up both why I believe the arts are so important in prisons (the prisoner was previously disruptive and spent periods of time in solitary confinement and is now an engaged and interested student) and how important it is to have qualified, creative and inspiring teaching staff.

I meant to say there was a very interesting wee development today when L.. asked me about an artist called Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th century Italian artist who made a series of etchings that are now known as ‘Piranesi’s Prisons’. Curiously the reason he noticed them and they registered is because of the lesson plan for my (TQFE) observation, when I asked the guys to make a personal space that reflected them.

He came in with the name on Monday morning and knew about the images but asked me to find out more, and I thought this is great, let’s build on it. Will do more research, and we could put them up with another artist to compare, contrast and stimulate. It is amazing how far that guy has come, especially when I remember how difficult he was when he first appeared on the scene! Michty he was awful!

The process of putting together the Arts and Justice issue of Scottish Justice Matters has been a fascinating and extremely interesting one.  I have been struck by the high degree of consensus among those who have contributed about the value and importance of the arts not only in criminal justice settings but in wider society.  There are no dissenting voices. For those of us used to the reprobation of the tabloids this is a welcome change!

A national commitment to the arts is important in safeguarding an approach to prison education which values the development of the whole person.  While colleagues in England and Wales express concerns about an education system which increasingly focuses on key skills to the exclusion of all else, asset-based and desistance-led approaches in Scotland offer the opportunity to develop an alternative, more creative vision for prison education.

I came to the task of editor as someone who has seen at first hand the power the arts have in prison education settings. My particular interest has been not only in how the arts can enrich the curriculum but also how creativity nurtures inspiring teachers.

The Inspiring Change project demonstrated how the arts could enrich the curriculum, engage learners and generate new ideas, supporting and reinforcing a creative approach to teaching and learning.  One of the legacies of the project has been an increased emphasis on new, project-based ways of working with learners in prisons.

The involvement of learners in the process has been central to its ambition. ‘Project-based learning’ refers to a process in which teachers and learners design, plan and carry out a project which has a publicly exhibited final outcome such as a publication, recording or performance and results in an activity that everyone can share and celebrate. The inspiration for projects can come from many different sources.  The initial spark for a project might come from a teacher’s passions or indeed from a student’s passion.  The important thing is that somebody is very excited about the idea – that person’s excitement is infectious.

This is how STIR came about.  The passion and commitment of good teachers sparked the enthusiasm of prisoners, our learners.  One of the editorial board members recounted recently in an article for Inside Times how his initial reluctance to get involved had been overcome by a teacher who refused to take no for an answer:  In all my years locked up I had never been asked to do anything constructive or rewarding. That all changed when I joined the STIR editorial team.  The magazine provides a real context for learning and the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills as well as demonstrating what prisoners are capable of if given the opportunity, support and encouragement.  The members of the Editorial Board view it as a job (though it rankles with them that their work is not remunerated!).  They treat it seriously and feel a sense of responsibility to their contributors and readers.  They meet deadlines and spend hours reading through submissions and proofreading text.  They are fiercely protective of their editorial control.

Projects like STIR help to counter the apathy, passivity and dependence which can result from institutionalization.  Visits by and interviews with authors, artists and musicians bring the outside world in to the prison and help to ‘normalise’ prison life. STIR has been hugely influential in encouraging creative approaches across the curriculum.  It really does seem that creativity begets more creativity. Teaching staff are increasingly working to great effect with artists from the community; collaborations with Artlink Central, SPAN and Glasgow School of Art are all reinforcing, supporting and complementing the work of the learning centres.

The arts belong to everyone and should be an important part of all of our lives. Many (though not all) of our learners in prisons have led lives largely untouched by literature, art or music.  These projects provide a chance to recompense them for this with a prospect of social benefit from enriching their lives.

Deborah Orr writing recently in The Guardian about Benefits Street commented that:

The other thing that comes over strongly in Benefits Street is the level of disengagement from human culture. No one on the street makes things, or fixes things, or even seems to have a passion for music or movies, or even the telly. They live in a basic, primitive way, and none of the services that support them seems to want to assist them, even in small ways, in escaping from that, even if only for an hour or two.

I believe it is a tremendously positive thing that many artists, teachers, social workers and prison staff are interested in providing services that help those caught up in the criminal justice system not only to escape for a few hours but I hope, to spark passions and interests that will endure and influence the future shape of their lives.

Kirsten Sams co-edited our Arts and Justice issue and runs the Offender Learning and Skills for 10 Scottish Prisons from North Lanarkshire College, Motherwell.

Posted in arts and justice