COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS – CULTURE & ENVIRONMENT
There is probably more art in prisons than there are legal highs. Certainly the arts have a longer history, though like drugs, their presence has been far from welcome in all their forms and, at times, there has been active censorship. Some prisoners have described art as a kind of legal high in itself. And they aren’t alone, the creative practitioners who work inside Britain’s prisons speak with passion about their work. Often they get paid little, sometimes nothing, yet they keep coming back for more… like it’s an addiction. Why?
To date most research into arts in prisons has focused on positive benefits for prisoners; participation in the arts may improve mental health, chip away at bad attitudes and behaviour, motivate prisoners to give education another chance and open the way to better relationships. All of these outcomes are essentially ‘correctional’ in their focus and aim to lead offenders away from a life of crime. However, none of this research is conclusive.
In a bid to improve the evidence, increasing amounts of research has focused on evaluating the effectiveness of specific prison arts projects, but this tends to generate far more paper than proof. The measures can be narrow, the rest of life chaotic and the benefits of the arts based on the same unfounded claims for their rehabilitative value. In a bid to gain entry, creative practitioners have supported these claims, indeed, they have been keen to say whatever it takes to get through the prison gates. There is no other group so eager to get on the inside of a place that everyone else wants to be on the outside of! And it may be that in this strange compulsion, this addiction, lie far more revealing answers as to why the arts have value for prisoners.
Rather than repeating the same old questions about what prisoners get out of the arts, a more pertinent question may be, why are practitioners so keen to put so much in? My research will dig beneath the ventriloquism of ‘policy-speak’ and the historical justifications of ‘the arts as morally improving’ and ask individual practitioners:
‘Why are you here?’.
By giving practitioners the opportunity to tell their own life histories a new layer of insight will be brought to the complicated dynamics of art in prison allowing a better understanding of how these stories of connection may free research from the myths of corrections.