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How the current Covid-19 crisis is impacting arts in criminal justice

How the current Covid-19 crisis is impacting arts in criminal justice



In this blog, National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) Director Jessica Plant reflects on how the current Covid-19 crisis is affecting our network, the impact on arts in criminal justice settings, and what the NCJAA is doing to help.


It has been nearly two weeks since the country went into lockdown to fight the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Across the world, people and communities are being impacted in profound ways and the real and lasting ramifications are still very uncertain. People in the criminal justice system are at significant risk of experiencing increased health inequalities at this time. The challenges faced by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to protect lives are unprecedented. We also know that the arts and culture sector is facing huge challenges in terms of its economic survival, and while innovative ways to produce culture online are highlighting creativity, the long term impacts will undoubtedly leave a shadow.

So how is our community of artists and arts organisations adapting and coping to ensure they can continue to support people in prisons and the community? Like most of the working world, they are scrambling to set up safe home working environments, buy I.T equipment, manage childcare and think of innovative ways to plan and deliver work in a completely unknown environment. We are seeing arts organisations manage huge cash flow issues, grapple with new legislation and contractual challenges and face unknown staffing and HR problems. We’ve seen freelance artists’ work drawn to a halt, leaving people feeling stranded and unsure.

We have been doing a number of things to bring people together, capture the immediate impact and support the arts in criminal justice network as much as we can. You can find information and resources on our website. We have been working closely with our managing organisation Clinks, who tirelessly advocate for the voluntary sector working in the criminal justice system. In addition to other support, Clinks has a daily call with HMPPS on operational challenges for the sector working with prisons, probation and youth offending and custody services and has set up a Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) special interest group to formally channel policy suggestions to government from its membership. The group is meeting weekly and includes NCJAA network member, Simon Ruding, Director, Theatre in Prisons and Probation (TiPP). You can follow Clinks’ updates on the dedicated Covid-19 webpage here and use its dedicated mailbox covid19@clinks.org to send any specific enquiries.

The Arts Forum

On 26th March we held our tri–annual Arts Forum meeting to focus specifically on the issues the NCJAA network is facing because of Covid-19. Representatives from Arts Council England, the MoJ and HMPPS attended, alongside network members representing a broad range of organisations. We learnt that the Arts Council, along with most of the philanthropic community, has largely responded quickly to Covid-19 crisis. It is offering flexibility and support to grant holders, unrestricting funds so that they can go towards core costs and releasing organisations from some, if not all, reporting and delivery requirements.

However, it is also clear that organisations relying on commissions and public sector contracts are in a particularly difficult situation. Some are concerned they may not survive the crisis, even if they are able to repurpose funding that is secure. We hope that we can support these vital organisations to survive and we will continue to meet with officials and communicate learning and recommendations from – and to – the NCJAA network.

Creativity in isolation

The Arts Forum also focused its attention on how we ensure that people in the criminal justice system can access creativity for wellbeing during prison lockdowns, especially when many cannot access the mass of online activity available to most of us. We have been delighted to learn that Prisoners Education Trust and National Prison Radio have set up expanded timetables of activity to drive in-cell learning and support. We are also pleased to hear that the annual Koestler Awards will continue, providing focus and purpose for so many people. We are excited about letter writing projects such as Fio’s Pen to Paper Challenge, a mindfulness initiative that could also reach inside the prison walls during lockdown.

The NCJAA wants to learn more about the creative ways organisations are supporting people during this time, so we can share case studies and expertise across the sector. Please get in touch at info@artsincriminaljustice.org.uk with any examples.

Network meetings

On Tuesday, we held our first online focus group with practitioners from the South East as part our local practice development project in partnership with the Rothschild Foundation. We heard heartening stories from practitioners who are ensuring drawing equipment is getting to prisoners, despite the logical challenges. We heard from musicians working with people post-release to produce music together via mobile phones, providing hope and connection for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. We’ve heard about plans for collective sculptures, games, choral works and poems being created in prisons, with individual contributions from every cell.

These stories keep us going in times like this. Stories of people dedicated to the work they do, even in the midst of personal and national crisis and people caring not only about the newly isolated, but those who always remain unseen and unheard. The future for arts and creativity in criminal justice settings is likely to look very different in the months and years ahead. Whatever happens, which we can’t yet predict, the environment will be even tougher than before.

What we will do

We aim to provide a community for those organisations and artists working in this challenging environment over the coming weeks and beyond. We will be providing Zoom hang-out sessions for people to come together and share experiences, resources and support. Please do join these sessions and email us to let us know what’s going on.

We will continue to share your experiences with funders and policymakers to help our creative and tenacious community to be as resilient as possible in the uncharted waters ahead. The more we know about the challenges you are facing, as well as the innovative ideas and examples of what’s working well, the better we can represent, advocate for and support our network during this critical time.


Image courtesy of TiPP, credit Anna White