03 Oct 2022

How arts, culture and media can change lives for those in the criminal justice system

Arts, culture and media are often seen as being ‘soft’, ‘impractical’ or ‘useless’. Creative classes are often sidelined, in favour of more technical or scientific courses. For people in the criminal justice system, however, arts and media can be an invaluable tool for empowerment, improved mental health, and positive change for the future.

Creative projects can help people in custody learn valuable new skills, find better ways to communicate and provide a positive outlet for any negative emotions or thoughts they may be processing.

At the same time when the output is shared it increases public awareness and challenges negative stereotypes, via exhibitions, events, publications, and awards, of people in the criminal justice system. It shows them as able, capable and interesting people who have things to communicate – and as people who can be respected, which too often is not the case. 

Over the last few years we have seen an increase in charities dealing in arts for people in the criminal justice system. These include Koestler Arts, a charity that encourages people in the criminal justice system to change their lives by participating in the arts, Synergy Theatre, aa company inspiring change through ground-breaking work across theatre and the criminal justice system  and Prison Reform Trust , an independent UK charity working to create a just, humane and effective penal system.

Studies have shown that engaging with arts, culture and media improves behaviours inside prison walls and upon release in the general community, including compliance with criminal justice orders and compulsory regimes. 

The Ministry of Justice re-offending analysis for the Prisoners Education Trust showed that grants for arts materials to prisoners saw a reduction in reoffending in a control test from 35% – 30%. Old data from the Ministry of Justice found that there were decreased rates of reoffending for criminals receiving grants and support from organisations such as Prisoners Education Trust of between 4 and 8 percent. Clearly there is a benefit for those imprisoned, and the community.

In fact, evidence from the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance indicates that arts projects are effective at improving in-prison behaviour (such as compliance with rules and engagement with the regime) and individual psychological factors (such as depression and a sense of purpose). They also found definite links shown between the arts and increased self-control and problem solving.

Key highlights from their Commissioning Guidance report indicates that arts, culture and media interventions help with:

  • Bullying and violence reduction – arts projects can improve staff and prisoner relationships and help to foster a safe environment with open and confidential lines of communication
  • Self-harm and suicide prevention – arts projects can contribute to improving mental wellbeing and supporting recovery and rehabilitation from mental health episodes
  • Substance misuse – arts can support prisons putting in place effective interventions as part of a wider drug and alcohol strategy.

It’s also promising to see that Arts Council England are investing in the area. In their last report they revealed that they spent around £434,000 on 20 projects classified as addressing crime and community safety. For example  Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival’s Bedtime Stories programme provides one-day workshops in prisons across England, allowing participants tow rite or record a story for relatives and  ‘Unlocked’, led by Soft Touch, used arts and creativity in a range of weekly sessions for prisoners of HMP Leicester and Stocken.

There have been clear successes.    

Lee Cutter, who served time in young offenders institutions between 2006-09, learned his skills of writing, drawing, and soap carving while in his cell. Cutter entered work to Koestler Arts , the UK’s best-known prison arts charity which encourages criminals to participate in the arts and share their work with the public, studied Fine Art at the University of Sunderland and now mentors prisoners in the criminal justice system.

Former prisoner Dean Stalham stepped out in front of an audience, not a jury, at the Royal Court Theatre in London to introduce his play, The Barred , to be performed by his new theatre company of fellow former criminals. Stalham learned his skills at Feltham Prison through the Not Shut Up charity magazine and programme of acting, creative writing and art

And of course our own social enterprise, the Mental Health Media Production Unit. Based at Wandsworth HMP, we’ve helped those in the criminal justice system transform their lives through learning filming, editing and film production skills. We’ve reached 17 prisons and nearly 8000 prisoners through the content, reaching a far bigger population than we ever thought possible.

If you’d like to know more about IJP’s video production and media training, get in touch.