Art Behind Bars : The Role of the Arts in the Cycle of Crime, Prison and Reoffending

Art Behind Bars : The Role of the Arts in the Cycle of Crime, Prison and Reoffending

A Zoom lecture by Angela Findlay

Angela Findlay is a professional artist, writer, and freelance lecturer with a long career of teaching art in prisons in Germany and England.

Her time ‘behind bars’ and later as Arts Coordinator of the London-based Koestler Trust, gave her many insights into the huge impact the arts can have in terms of rehabilitation.

In 2016 she was invited by the Ministry of Justice to support the case for the arts to be included in new, progressive programmes of rehabilitation and education.

‘The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’

Fyodor Dostoevsky 

Angela began this potentially controversial  lecture by stressing that she was expressing her points of view and that she was fully aware that other people would have very different views.

To begin Angela gave us a short resume of her career and how it led to the work she has done in prisons. She began her career by painting large scale murals and had gone into a prison yard to paint a mural with some of the prisoners. This led to her studying art therapy for three years, focussing on using colour and then going to Germany to work with 10 prisoners. At this point she recounted that her German was not good and instead of saying to the prisoners ‘we will do this painting together ‘she had  said ‘ we will go to bed together!!’ Because she wasn’t attached to a prison she was not obliged to report anything the prisoners may say and as a result they began to open up and express their thoughts and feelings. After 9 years she became Art Co-ordinator for the ‘Koestler Trust.’ Her main focus was setting up ‘Learning to Learn’ – using a variety of artists from all around London. They would offer an alternative to conventional classroom activities which had the potential to become the springboard for a new career.

Angela then gave us some very startling data whilst acknowledging that prison serves the public by keeping in custody those who have committed a crime.

67% of under 18s reoffend after 12 months

46% of adults reoffend after 12 months

52% of prisoners are dyslexic

70% suffer from some type of personality disorder

65% have a reading age below 8

50% can’t write

In the Uk we have 86.500 prisoners in the system – more than anywhere else in Europe at a cost of £37.000 per years per prisoner. Reoffending costs the government £18.1 billion.

Angela said that this is a spectacular failure rate and she gave us some of the reasons why she thinks it currently doesn’t work.Her main point was that prisoners are not confronted with the impact of their crime- even that they think the world is a better place as a result of what they have done. She gave the example of a prisoner who had ‘just stolen a handbag ‘ and the prisoner was shocked when the victim said that as a result of the mugging she was frightened to go out so she lost her job which in turn made her depressed and as a result of being depressed she lost her partner.

Prisoners, she told us, are locked in with nothing to do, in overcrowded and understaffed premises. There is no provision for education and drugs are everywhere.

Angela said she was not saying – ‘give them a paintbrush and they’ll be ok. ‘ nor was she suggesting that we don’t need prisons, but prisoners should be on a programme of Confrontation/Challenge and Change.

Victim awareness will lead to empathy ‘ until this day I have never felt so much remorse for what I have done’ She told us of a bank robber who had said to her ‘I have never met a man who committed a crime with evil intent.’

So the question is ‘How can the arts work?’ Angela then shared with us her programme of work with prisoners.

Her first step was to give prisoners just the three primary colours to work with and paint with and then begin to ask them to mix these colours and ask them to describe the colours they had made with sounds and adjectives.

One of the issues is that prisoners had overstepped boundaries and now were in a system of rigid and tight boundaries so she would then have a colour conversation with them – in their paintings some had made definite strong boundaries between colours  whereas others had mixed them totally. What she was aiming for them to do was to mix the colours gently and flowing.

Art projects often led to lightbulb moments with issues addressed through art rather than full on which could lead to totally unacceptable behaviour..Prisoners had to learn to collaborate within their groups, thereby giving them these soft skills which are so helpful in the world outside prison.

Angela gave us examples of how she chose the projects with the needs of the particular prisoners in mind.

Some of them had committed crimes because they wanted instant gratification – ‘I want that car so I’ll take it ‘ so asking them to create mosaics helped them to see that taking things step by step will eventually have very pleasing results – that nothing is instant.

Other prisoners had very low self esteem – possibly with the absence of a father or positive male role model and authoritative figure, but creating a piece of art can raise  their self esteem and also become a focus for talking about how they feel; many prisoners are emotionally illiterate.

Angela concluded this fascinating lecture by reaffirming what arts can offer to prisoners and the prison system. Arts she said, can make a massive contribution to preventing re-offending. The arts demand self discipline and raise self-esteem and can serve as a springboard to a more positive future which impacts on us all.

Her final statement – that the Arts could halve the numbers reoffending, left us  feeling very reflective and questioning  of our current system.

Thank you Angela, you presented your views in a  clear and positive manner and whilst we may not have agreed with everything you said we certainly had much food for thought and consideration



2020 KOESTLER AWARDS, South Bank Centre, London
NOTE: Angela Findlay, who gave last Monday’s TASNF monthly lecture “Art Behind Bars”, was Arts Coordinator for the Koestler Trust
The links above are a reminder of a listing given in Section A. NEWS in last week’s email. They give information about The Koestler Arts Annual Awards 2020 Exhibition (for which all the entrants are in the criminal justice system).