“How do you tame the prisoners in your art class?”

low res 009 prisonPortraits by prisoners in my art class, Cologne Prison’96

I was asked a very interesting question in one of my talks to sixth formers last week. I had just delivered my lecture on ‘Crime, prisons and offenders – the role the arts can play’ describing why prisons aren’t working and what art projects with inmates can contribute towards their rehabilitation. As usual the questions were all interesting, but one in particular struck me. A young man asked me what I did in my initial classes to “tame” the prisoners with whom I was locked in a room. A brilliant question in that it seemed to highlight precisely the misconception so many people have about who prisoners are and what they are like.

I suddenly saw the kinds of characters that most people perceive offenders to be. Muscle-bound, tattooed thugs with shaven heads and thick necks ready to strike out and stab, rape or kill whoever crossed their path. I guess that’s why people found me so “brave” being amongst them with no beeper, no key, no guard. Of course there are a few pretty scary men wandering around the wings and corridors like time bombs ready to explode in your face. But actually when you work in a prison you learn very quickly how far that perception is from reality.

I tried to describe to this young man and the audience that prisoners have their ‘reasons’ for committing their crimes, albeit warped reasons to most people. A man who stabs his girlfriend is no more likely to stab me than I am him. He has a story that led to the stabbing – usually an on-going dispute or a dysfunctional / destructive dynamic that culminates in his lashing out. That’s of course no justification. But the feeling of wanting to is often understandable. I have heard men on countless occasions describing the context, the series of events and the emotions leading up to their crimes. I have no doubt most people feel similar things from time to time, but what makes ‘us’ different from ‘them’ is that we haven’t acted on them.

I have met some truly incredible people who have landed in prison, for very minor or very major crimes. I feel honoured to have heard their stories and to have gained the insights I have into what actually amounts to human nature in all its extremes. There are some really, really nasty people in our prisons, but the majority don’t need “taming” at all. They need attention, understanding, encouragement, education, guidance and dare I say, love.

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