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A new narrative

A new narrative

In this blog, Chair of the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) Alison Frater, looks back at this year’s Annual Meeting, which took place at the National Theatre in London on 1st March. In the post, she reflects on the readings by four inspiring authors who have had direct experience of the criminal justice system, tying their experiences into the political context that the arts and criminal justice sector currently sits within.

“The 2016/17 annual meeting of the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) began by celebrating an extraordinary year with new creative narratives from four inspiring authors. All four described finding luck in the desolate complexity of the criminal justice system. The poems and narrative were intriguing, focusing on individual experience, touching on themes of prison life and talking about self-worth in a way that was meaningful but not polemic or dramatic. The words also conveyed a great deal about how and why people end up in prison, highlighting the real struggle to get out both physically and emotionally.  And they were funny in a quiet, gentle way.  Mickey DeHara, founder of Films4Life, spoke about how his mixed race had confused racists in prison: “they didn’t know whether to call me spic or wop or whitey!” And then, ever so matter of fact, he took my breath away: “my mother left when I was 18 months.”

Bobby Kasanga, founder of Hackney Wick Football Club and author of two published e-books, spoke about his time in prison: “well let’s face it – it’s bad, but it’s also the biggest soap opera in the world.” Nick Moss began writing poetry as a way of mapping his experiences in prison: “it’s the university for the working class… What people learn in there can be amazing… yet it’s so difficult when you’re out.”  Sonya Hale, whose debut play Glory Whispers draws upon her own experience of prison and drug addition, she never thought she could write, but ultimately proved herself wrong.

It was by luck that they all found the arts. “Piglet, this bloke on the wing gave me this book and the effect, it was so amazing,” Bobby said of the time a fellow prisoner gifted him Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist. Interested readers were also crucial part of the journey: “because people on the wing liked my stories I kept writing. The education department was wondering who was doing 500 photocopies.”

It seems that the role of the NCJAA and its members is to create this ‘luck.’ We need to continue to create opportunities that people can take advantage of.

The speakers’ stories connected the rhetoric of prison reform with the realities of people with complex lives, frailties and vulnerabilities. For them, the luck they had found was a piece of wreckage to cling to that offered belonging, purpose, recovery and hope, but it wasn’t easy and it’s not there for everyone. Luck like this is limited, because the criminal justice system wrestles with a conundrum. People with intellectual depth, ability and humanity contrast with the view that arts and culture is an undeserved indulgence, when in reality it’s about building empathy and a profound and lasting change.

The arts are hard work, because amidst all the discipline of learning lines, pitching up to play a role, or rehearsing a score, you have to work with others, build trust, take responsibility, play your part and face your dreams.

We discussed how we had started 2016 thinking our luck had changed. It began with a speech from then Prime Minister David Cameron about the need to reform prisons. He talked of the need for ‘wholesale reform,’ the “soft bigotry of low expectations for people in the criminal justice system whose life chances are shot to pieces from the start.” Prisons, he said, “are often miserable, painful environments full of damaged individuals. So we should ask ourselves: is it a sensible strategy to allow these environments to become twisted into places that just compound that damage and make people worse? Or should we be making sure that prisons are demanding places of positivity and reform.”

The pace for change was set and we met the challenge, responding to a series of consultations which included the Lammy Review, which looked at improving outcomes for young black and/or Muslim men in the criminal justice system; the Taylor Review of youth justice; the Coates Review into education in prisons; and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)’s Culture White Paper.

In 2016, when we chaired a roundtable with former Minister for Prisons Andrew Selous and former Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey, I felt that at last we had a government that was able to see the transforming impact of arts in criminal justice. We maintain that complex problems need complex solutions. No one single intervention will make the difference. The role of the arts is no less important than any other intervention, but if we overlook it we are all diminished, and we do a disservice to people in criminal justice settings who would and could really benefit from participating in the arts in some way.

So the change of government following the European Union Referendum plunged us into a period of anxiety. Early signs suggested that the emphasis of new government policy for the criminal justice system was safety and security with a less nuanced grasp of reform at the human level. Anticipating such an extreme shift did however appear overly pessimistic as the new Secretary of State for Justice, Elizabeth Truss has now announced a strong policy piece about the purpose of prisons being rehabilitation, with a determination that this will be enshrined in legislation.

We believe that the Government plans to increase the autonomy of prison governors and their new accountabilities for managing spending across prisons offers an opportunity to embed the arts into every part of a prison: as a bridge into education, a means for learning, a part of resettlement.

For us, this has meant a renewed emphasis in our Arts Forum meetings, during which we meet with staff from the Ministry of Justice and the DCMS, on cross government thinking. For governors, what is the best way to work with arts organisations? What outcomes should be expected? How can continuity be built between the prison and the community?  We are continuing to increase the evidence base for understanding the impact of the arts on individuals, families and communities, and we will carry on promoting and showcasing work, disseminating findings from research and identifying gaps in knowledge. The aim is clear, to increase the element of luck. We need to build capacity and find ways to support champions for arts in the criminal justice system, including people who have experience and stories to tell. Luck shouldn’t be a question of chance.”

Alison Frater