Pentonville Prison is “crumbling and rife with vermin”. HMP Birmingham is in a “state of crisis”. Prison staff protest over “unprecedented violence” in jails. “Biggest UK prison riot in decades could and should have been prevented,” report finds.
We have been reading one such headline after another for months now, actually years, probably decades. Almost everything about our prison system is failing and contributing to this dire state: chronic overcrowding, understaffing, lack of purposeful activity, easily available drugs, squalor, rises in violence, self-harm, suicide… they are all interlinking, poisonous contributors to what is becoming a system wholly unfit for purpose. Yet still nothing substantial is done.
So there’s good news and bad news on the prison front this month.
The good news is that the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has declared that “there is a role for the arts” in criminal justice. He believes it’s a good idea. In an interview with The Times on May 25th, Mr Gauke said “the creative sector is a big employer, you hear stories of someone involved in a prison production who ends up in the West End as a lighting technician…” He wants “a culture of rehabilitation” that encourages “drama, writing and painting in prisons.”
“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).
Last month I wrote about how the words “Britain” and “shame” rarely appear in the same sentence. This month the two words have been inseparable. “Britain’s Shame” even became the title for BBC’s Panorama programme on the horrifying and heartbreaking fire at Grenfell Tower on 14th June. The programme opens with the accusation that shoved these two words together to sit unwillingly and uncomfortably side by side for all the world to see: “They were warned several times, countless times; they were warned probably until the day before the fire…”
‘Falling on deaf ears’, Koestler Trust entry from HMP Standford Hill
I don’t feel in any position to write about the tragedy that has ended or blighted so many innocent peoples’ lives. It is too sad and it is too soon. But I do feel in a position to talk about the shame that surrounds it, the shame that needs to be looked at and above all felt so that vital changes can be swiftly made before another tinderbox of neglect ignites.
A last minute blog before the curtains fall on 2016. As a year, will it get a rapturous applause and an encore I wonder? No, I don’t think it will. Not from the point of view of one of my main blog themes – prisons – at least. A re-wind to the beginning and a second chance…? Well that would be wonderful.
This time last year I was excited. I think all those who work in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) were. We were facing unprecedented possibilities of genuine reform within the sector. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had done his homework thoroughly, rather ironically consulting and listening to the experts more than most of his predecessors had done. He commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create the Education Review: Unlocking Potential to which even individuals like me were given an opportunity to contribute. My ambition to make the case for the arts at government level was looking set to be realized.
“Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.” Oscar Wilde, de Profundis, 1897
People were moving around the building as if it were an ancient site, a relic of times long past. Tentatively they stepped into the tiny cells, their barred windows raised to a height designed to deprive. Metal bunks, the squeak of their springs still echoing in the silence of long nights past; a painted table, names etched into the surface, reminders of identities transformed into numbers; and toilets tucked behind waist-high partitions separating toothbrushes and washing-up from another’s piss and shit.