Creating hope for those in prison


By: Dr Susie Atherton, Senior Lecturer in Criminology

Creating ‘hope’ within a prison setting may seem a strange and even futile endeavor, given that this is a population many deem unworthy of help, or unwilling to change. The evidence from re-offending rates in England and Wales would seem to support this sense of futility regarding the rehabilitation of prisoners, in whatever form it is attempted. Setting aside our judgement about prisoners is not easy, news reporting tells us about the most heinous of crimes and the most undeserving of prisoners. This is not the whole story – the majority of prisoners are not high risk or a danger to society and their path to rehabilitation and desistance needs to be understood in this context. This means as a society, we need to accept the narrative that can they change, and those who show willingness to do this, should be allowed to do so.

Desistance theorists clearly outline the path to rehabilitation as the interaction between individual motivation to change and societal structures required to enable this (Maruna, 2001; King, 2013). Both of these components benefit from the presence of hope as a mechanism for change, especially for prisoners who need to envisage a different future for themselves. The Soft Touch Arts based workshops, ‘Unlocked, operate in both prisons and community settings and they adopt the principle of ‘social prescribing’, which aims to engage prisoners and re-entering citizens with creative learning. Lead artists run the workshops as facilitators for learning, they create an inclusive space for prisoners to explore their creativity, through a range of mediums. Public exhibitions are put on to showcase the various forms of art from painting, digital art and sculpture. The process of researching this by staff at De Montfort University (Professor Victoria Knight) and Nottingham Trent University (Dr Benedict Carpenter van Barthold) required a participatory approach with staff at Soft Touch Arts, along with data collected through interviews with staff and ‘artists’ – prisoners attending the workshops. This label adopted by Soft Touch Arts was intentional, to represent an ethos which directly challenged assumptions about prisoners and the experience of prison.

The Unlocked arts programme followed the principles of Leamy et al’s (2011) CHIME framework, which advocates an approach based on health and recovery models. CHIME is an acronym which encapsulates the elements of connectedness, hope (and optimism), identity, meaning in life and empowerment. This shifts rehabilitation away from its primary focus on risk assessments, risk management and meeting the practical and economic needs of prisoners on release. It acknowledges the importance of seeing the rehabilitative journey as requiring hope, meaning and empowerment, alongside the practical needs and surveillance and control of prisoners (Atherton and Knight, forthcoming).[1]

Previous research on arts based programmes

A key finding from the evaluation of Unlocked and previous research identifies hope as a ‘social contagion’. Initially identified by Blumer (1969), the social contagion effect occurs when leadership instills hope and resilience into work environments, to create unity through interpersonal communication (Norman et al, 2005). This required sustained positive reinforcements, which become ever more important in a prison setting, a place of deprivations (Sykes, 1973) and loss where such reinforcements are few and far between. Projects like Unlocked embrace this ethos, to enthuse the desire for creativity, creating a space within prison which encapsulates positive social interaction and potential for prisoners to develop a new self-identity and set of goals. Hope also has a role in building resilience and skills for adapting – an experience many prisoners face both during their sentence and on release (Synder, 2000).

To better understand how arts based programmes contribute to desistance, it is useful to look at the work of Cheliotis and Jordanska (2016), who emphasise the need to capture ‘secondary desistance’ – changes in perceptions of the self that disrupt or transform criminal behaviour (see McNeill et al, 2011). These so-called ‘soft’ outcomes can lead to more quantifiable outcomes favoured by policy makers, while also alleviating the disruptive and harmful aspects of prison and allowing prisoners to develop transferable skills (Stickley and Hui, 2012). A similar pattern has emerged from the USA, a country with a mass incarceration problem and a need to reform and rethink the use of prison.

Johnson (2008) examined arts-based projects in the USA and found a wealth of evidence showing the benefits of artistic activity in prisons. However, he also identifies challenges in the implementation of such projects, from organisational culture and punitive ideology leading to censorship of creative activities. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the work of organisations like Soft Touch Arts with restrictions impacting their presence and work within prisons. The precarity of such projects and their sustained presence in prison is bound to impact their effectiveness, but it is clear there is a desire among prisoners for self-expression and engagement in rewarding activities.

Further benefits have been identified by Wilson et al (2008) when evaluating a music-based project, ‘Good Vibrations’, part of the Firebird Trust music charity. This project uses gamelan percussion music from Indonesia to empower people through creative involvement and offers a creative outlet, again working towards a public concert. In addition to the benefits of the creative process, it was also reported that prisoners would engage with other forms of education, had improved relationships with staff and each other and decreased levels of self-reported anger. The role of practitioners as facilitators and their inclusive approach was also important, again to show benefits beyond quantifiable risk assessments and measurements of desistance (Clements, 2004). Achieving these goals in the penal landscape is not an easy task, as in addition to the security concerns, organisational culture and the impact of Covid 19, is the lack of agency many prisoners will feel. In prison, there is a lack of autonomy, control and ability to make personal choices. This impacts on feelings of hope, especially in the context of setting future goals and reintegration, prison in fact creates ‘goal interference’ (Snyder et al, 1991:571) by disrupting life course trajectories. In relation to this is what Warr (2016) refers to as a deprivation of certitude, where prisoners cannot clearly see a path out of prison or understand how to navigate life outside.

The importance of choice and agency was clear from the evaluation, as the project allowed prisoners to choose their form of arts practice, allowing them to develop their own approach based on their own preferences and abilities (Atherton and Knight, forthcoming). In addition, the social contact with others in a setting geared towards learning, interaction and generating hope was also important (Huxley, 1997) and encouraged innovation.  In essence the project offered a ‘safe space for novel activities’ (Atherton and Knight, forthcoming), with an additional sense of purpose and meaning (Hacking et al, 2008).

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

Hope as ‘self care’

Hope as ‘self care’ was also evident from the therapeutic and nourishing aspects of creative activity, which align with hope (Begley and Blackwood, 2000). This was described by the artists as ‘a confidence boost’ and was particularly important for those within the prison setting (Atherton and Knight, forthcoming). In addition, the creativity the prisoners engaged with continued in the community, with some continuing to work in the field of arts, while others used the experience as a springboard to other careers. It was clear that a key component for the project was its role in filling time with positive social interactions and engaging activity (ibid).

The management of emotions for the artists was also important, to navigate prison life and life outside and help them shift from their ‘criminal past’ (Maruna, 2001; King, 2012). Planning ahead is a key part of the desistance journey and engaging with arts work in prisons clearly helped this. It signals a change, hope within prisoners and an opportunity to choose to work towards sustainable change (Wilson et al, 2008; Cheliotis and Jordanska, 2016). Adaption to prison life is necessary for ‘doing time’ and self-care forms an important aspect to this (Liebling, 1999). Instilling hope enables prisoners in understanding the importance of self-care, which many found through engagement with arts projects (Atherton and Knight, forthcoming). In addition, is the notion of hope as aspiration, in which hope is fueled by the view of prisoners as people who can achieve goals and can use new opportunities to do this. Respondents in the evaluation of the project reported an increase in wellbeing and focusing on the future, which is crucial to transformation and the creation of personal and practical destinations (ibid).

Given hope is an important mechanism for change, prisoners needed to understand this as part of the rehabilitation journey, so they could take agency over this process, as opposed to giving this to the state to make happen. Working with Unlocked, prisoners would see themselves as achieving creative goals, and could better understand the importance of taking up opportunities for learning and support. This change also affected their interactions with others, as well as their own agency, to create a different future and extricate themselves from their criminal past. This contribution to the desistance journey was valued as it was something prisoners understood as needed, as achievable (King, 2013). The project met an additional requirement of desistance, as an external resource which offers a space in which ex-offenders can develop skills needed from basic social skills alongside the creativity they express, which is at the heart of the Soft Touch project. This was a space in which they would feel welcome, valued, included and in which they could change their label of ex-offender and meet the inevitable challenges of reintegration.

Reference List

  • Cheliotis, L. and Jordanoska, A. (2016) The arts of desistance: Assessing the role of arts‐based programmes in reducing reoffending. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice, 55(1-2), pp.25-41.
  • Clements, P. (2004) The rehabilitative role of arts education in prison: Accommodation or enlightenment?. International Journal of Art and Design Education, 23(2), pp.169-178.
  • Hacking, S., Secker, J., Spandler, H., Kent, L. and Shenton, J., (2008). Evaluating the impact of participatory art projects for people with mental health needs. Health and social care in the community, 16(6), pp.638-648.
  • Huxley, P., (1997). Arts on prescription. Stockport: Stockport NHS Trust.
  • Johnson, L.M., (2008). A Place for Art in Prison: Art as A Tool for Rehabilitation and Management. Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, 5(2).
  • King, S. (2012) Transformative agency and desistance from crime. Criminology and Criminal Justice. 13 (3), 366-383.
  • Leamy, M., Bird, V., Le Boutillier, C., Williams, J. and Slade, M. (2011) Conceptual framework for personal recovery in mental health: systematic review and narrative synthesis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 199(6), pp.445-452.
  • Liebling, A., (1999). Prison suicide and prisoner coping. Crime and Justice, 26, pp.283-359.
  • McNeill, F., Farrall, S., Lightowler, C. and Maruna, S., (2012). How and why people stop offending: Discovering desistance. Insights evidence summary to support social services in Scotland.
  • Maruna, S. (2001) Making Good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington DC: American Psychological Association Books.
  • Snyder, C.R., Harris, C., Anderson, J.R., Holleran, S.A., Irving, L.M., Sigmon, S.T., Yoshinobu, L., Gibb, J., Langelle, C., and Harney, P. (1991). The will and the ways: Development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 570–585.
  • Stickley, T. and Hui, A., (2012). Social prescribing through arts on prescription in a UK city: Participants’ perspectives (Part 1). Public health, 126(7), pp.574-579. Social prescribing through arts on prescription in a UK city: Participants’ perspectives (Part 1)
  • Warr, J. (2016) The deprivation of certitude, legitimacy and hope: Foreign national prisoners and the pains of imprisonment. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 16(3), 301-318.
  • Wilson, D., Caulfield, L. and Atherton, S., (2009). Good Vibrations: The long term impact of a prison based music project.

[1] Atherton, S and Knight V. (forthcoming, 2022) Penal Arts Interventions and Hope: Outcomes of arts-based projects in prisons and community settings, The Prison Service Journal (dedicated to the memory of Jahmaine Davis, Artist).

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