On a recent trip to London I was pleasantly surprised that we had booked into a hotel which was a stone’s throw away from the Southbank Centre. The excitement was not about seeing the architectural beauty of this building. It was all about what was contained within.

In the basement, the Koestler Trust, to mark their 50th Anniversary, were putting on their annual art exhibition FREE. As well as the exhibition being called FREE it was also free which was good news for this Scotsman.

FREE is the UK’s annual national showcase of arts by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees. The exhibition contains approximately 180 exhibits ranging from paintings, photos, sculptures, short films, animations, writing and audio submissions. The exhibition is curated by Sarah Lucas who has done an excellent job selecting and presenting the works.

Before posting a few pictures of the art I think it is important to explain why I was so keen to see this work. I cannot be said to be an art lover. I have no understanding of the techniques and material. I have little understanding of the great artists. I can’t even draw a straight line. What I do have is an appreciation of what I like. I like art that conveys a message about the time, the place and the culture it was produced in. I like art that provides a snap shot of society highlighting its values, failings and successes. Prisoner artwork does this for me. Whilst the subject matter may be of a prison environment the works often reflect exactly the values of society outside the prison walls.

A number of years ago I was invited by one of my clients to a Koestler exhibition in Scotland. My client was serving a life sentence and had sent the invitation in the post to my office. He was one of the lucky artists whose artwork was to be exhibited. He was very proud of his achievement. When I met him next he explained to me all about his artwork and how being able to draw and paint was a fantastic release and also a fantastic way for him to understand himself and his crime. He explained to me about the work of the Koestler Trust and how proud he was that his work was being exhibited. I still remember the invitation as it had a wonderful painting of a humming bird on the front. For whatever reason I unfortunately never made it and missed out on seeing his work hanging in a gallery.

Over the years I have met other prisoner who can only be described as fabulous artists. They paint, they draw they make animations using computers. Some make birthday cards and Christmas cards. Others create stencils or drawings which they pass onto friends and family to use for tattoos. Some had never picked up a pen or a paint brush or written a poem until they went to custody. Prison unlocked a hidden skill and talent that had not been recognised or been allowed to develop in the community. There are some extremely talented individuals hidden away behind prison walls. Writer, actors, painters, sculptors, musicians etc. Imagine if you could harness that talent in the community. Imagine the number of people who might not go to prison. Imagine the number who could break the destructive cycle of offending by recognising and unlocking their talent.

Often when you arrive at the prison visitors’ entrance you see family members walking out with canvases. At HMP Shotts when you walk the very long corridors to the Parole Board Tribunals you get a chance to see the prisoners’ art work hanging on the walls. Many of my clients realise that I am interested and bring their work with them to consultations to show me. What always strikes me is the pride and joy they have and it is easy to see the sense of achievement written across their faces. Over the years I have been lucky enough to meet a number of Koestler Award winners
and exhibitors. I vowed that when I got another chance to attend an exhibition I would. It took a long time but the day eventually came.

The following are a selection of the works. Being patriotic I have posted photos of works from prisoners in Scottish prisons.

Sculpture: Same Shit Different Day. Douglas Wilkie, HMP Inverness.
Oil or Acrylic: HOODIE. Martin Black HMP Shotts. (Was this hung over the fire hose intentionally or not?)
Portraits: Lifelong Days. George MacKay, HMP Addiewell.
INVERSE. Anon, HMP Shotts Tony Bushell, Gold Award for Portraits. “I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who visits the show – it means a lot to us knowing that people are willing to…take time out of their busy days to look at what we’ve done. It shouldn’t be underestimated how much good creative arts can do in respect to changing prisoners”
Let’s Fertilise the Garden That is Our Imagination. John Cullaine, HMP Shotts, Sir Peter Lloyd Bronze Award for Oil or Acrylic. “The Koestler Trust is not just about promoting the arts; I truly believe it is turning people around in their thoughts”
—FALLEN HERO (Sid). Anon, HMP Shotts, Bronze Award for Portraits. “The prison art class brings different prisoners together. We share ideas; we talk about our work, for a few hours each day we are allowed to drop our guard, to relax and not to be judged.”

The Prisoner. Kenneth Donnelly, HMP Kilmarnock, Hope Highly Commended Award for Sculpture.

For more from the exhibition follow this link.

Having viewed the exhibition and having previously discussed the benefit of the arts with my clients I started to wonder if the arts could be used to reduce offending or to help people understand themselves or their crimes. On closer investigation it was clear that that was one of the values of art in prison. As indicated in the programme for the FREE exhibition, “Offenders can participate in the arts: on their own initiative; in prison art departments; in art therapy as part of mental health treatment; or in projects run by arts organisations in prisons and in the community. There is growing evidence of the impact of the arts in offenders’ lives. New Philanthropy Capital’s 2011 research ‘Unlocking the Value’ found that arts projects can halve the expected rate of re-offending. ‘Inside Education’ noted that Koestler Awards are motivational for offender learners. An evidence library is being developed by the Arts Alliance, the national body for arts in criminal justie:

If this research is true the government in conjunction with criminal justice services in prison and the community should be encouraged to set up local art projects to see if re-offending can be reduced by the use of the arts.

Most of the art work in the exhibition, together with other art not contained in the exhibition, is for sale. The proceeds of the sales are divided between the artist (50%), Victim Support (25%) and the Koestler Trust (25%). For more information on purchasing work follow the link on the Koestler web page. I have my eye on this piece and just hope I have not missed out on it.

I am also looking forward to my next opportunity to view prisoner art work. This time it will be in Glasgow between 3rd November and 25th November 2012 at the Tramway, Albert Drive, Glasgow. This will be Koestlers’ Scottish exhibition named Insight and Outlook. Follow this link for details.

My final thought is that we should always remember that prisoners are human beings and that they should be treated as such. To allow prisoners to produce and then have their art work exhibited and sold is a fantastic opportunity for them. The Koestler Trust should be congratulated for its excellent work over the last half century and hopefully for the next half century to come.

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