On Tuesday 17th January, the pupils of St Mary’s Calne were introduced to an absorbing mix of Art and Psychology by artist Angela Findlay. Having first walked into a prison in Sydney Australia armed only with her portfolio, Angela found herself working with drug smugglers, bank robbers and murderers. After many years of experience and clearly having found her vocation, she later became the Arts Coordinator of the internationally recognised Koestler Trust, where she recruited other willing artists to help run projects with offenders.
This was a fascinating and informative talk, not just learning about Art therapy itself, but also gaining an insight into the prisoners’ own perspective. Statistically, an astonishing sixty-five percent of adult male prisoners have a reading age of eight and fifty percent cannot write. It is, therefore, unsurprising that sixty-seven percent go on to re-offend within two years of being released from jail. They also display a complete lack of understanding of the effect their actions have on their victims. When they are confronted by their victims, and made to listen to the damage they might have inflicted both emotionally and physically, many begin to feel regret, an emotion probably never experienced before.
What makes them offend in the first place? There is strong evidence of a number of factors that can trigger an individual to break the law. These include a lack of understanding and respect for boundaries; a desire for instant gratification, rather than having to work for something; a lack of empathy, combined with a tendency to over-react and lash out; and low self-esteem, which can often cause aggression.
How does Art help? Encouraging inmates to work together and produce joint artwork, including huge murals, introduces a need to respect boundaries and what is acceptable or not. Learning to understand that Art is a skill not obtained immediately, and that a successful piece of art requires hard work, discipline and patience. Understanding emotions by matching colours with human characteristics, and encouraging use of bright colours rather than dark brooding ones. Using statuary to teach self control, since the slightest loss of temper can lead to the total destruction of their work.
Many prisoners have never produced a piece of creative work in their lives and, on completing a project, feel a huge sense of achievement and self-worth. Angela’s concept of teaching Art to prisoners is fascinating and, judging by its success, might be something that HMP should adopt as a routine part of their prison programme, perhaps alongside other subjects such as Literature. If it encourages prisoners to believe in their own potential, and stop them re-offending, surely an investment worth making?
Given a chance, the UK could unlock some serious new talent!