“What is the most important thing we can do?” That is the question I am so often asked at the end of my ‘arts in prison’ talk. Yet I have never been able to give an answer that feels satisfactory.
Through pictures, stories, statistics and facts, my audiences get a glimpse into our prison system, into the minds and lives of offenders, and into what role the arts can play in the process of rehabilitation. “I had no idea!” is the most common response, and then, with their new insight, people across the country, from sixth formers to retirees, want to know what they personally can do to help solve the increasingly dire situation that is our criminal justice system (CJS).
- You can donate money or time to one of the many charities supporting prisoners and their families.
- You could send a donation to The Forgiveness Project for their excellent RESTORE programme
- You could sponsor an award for the Koestler Trust’s annual exhibition (on now at the Southbank until 15th November)
- You could volunteer to help prisoners learn basic numeracy and literacy skills (65% of adult prisoners have a reading age of an 8 year old and 50% can’t write)
- You could write to your MP to voice your concerns.
All the answers are valid but, apart from donating money, quite hard to implement. So what else could you do to make a difference? David Cameron’s 2006 “Hug a hoodie” campaign was, at best, unrealistic, at worst wholly unadvisable, but, in its sentiment, it was getting close to something.
Yesterday, I was talking at Forest School on the edge of Epping Forest. It has a particularly effective formula for getting its students to really think about the issues raised by their visiting speakers. After the hour-long presentation, all 300 of them disappear into smaller groups and discuss some pre-suggested questions around the topic. After twenty minutes they return to the hall and, those who want to, can ask the speaker their own personal questions. As a result, the questions were thoughtful and considered:
- In times of cuts, can the government justify spending money on prisoners when the NHS is in such need?
- Can one art project prevent re-offending?
- Is there enough help for prisoners when they are released?
- Do women respond to art projects as well as men?
And then there it was again:
- What is the most important thing we / I can do?
Yesterday I found myself replying to the last question in a different way. It suddenly seemed obvious: The most important thing we can do is to start to move away from the black and white thinking that divides people into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. To stop lumping all our prisoners into the ‘evil’ category of murderer, rapist, child abuser or terrorist – all crimes that inspire merciless cries of ‘bang’em up and throw away the key’, and place the perpetrators at the bottom of our deserving-of-sympathy lists. We need to start differentiating between those who really do need to be locked up and those who urgently need something different.
As a civilised society and as educated and/or privileged individuals, we must start taking into consideration the journeys and decisions people have made that land them in jail. Did you know that:
- many offenders started their lives as victims: of sexual abuse, violence, neglect, drug addiction, abandonment…
- that 52% of them are dyslexic and probably didn’t get the help they needed
- that 42% were excluded from school and
- 47% have not one single qualification
- that 67% of women in prison were in care
- that 75% of young offenders had an absent father and 33% an absent mother
- that 41% of prisoners observed domestic violence as children
- that 70% have some sort of personality disorder or mental health issue…
The list goes on. And once you know that, doesn’t it become glaringly obvious that a different solution is needed? Do we really need a serious crisis to force the nation to collectively wake up to the shame of our prisons? We know we can’t rely on the ever-changing politicians to sort things out. And when it comes to dealing with crime, they are generally responding to the public’s baying for harsher punishments. So it is up to all of us to start seeing nuances in the widespread, over-simplistic, binary judgment of who is good and who is bad in our society. We need to listen to prisoners’ stories, understand that they didn’t set out to be bad. Many of the people locked in our jails, often in terrifying, squalid, drug-ridden and violent conditions, were once sensitive children whose anger, violence, or despair were quite possibly normal reactions to the dysfunction of their lives.
We don’t need to hug the hoodies we meet, but we, both collectively and individually, must stop seeing them as “other”, as all-bad, or as somebody else’s problem to fix. Condemn and punish their crimes but don’t condemn them.
So, what do you think is the most important thing you can do?!