My role as Development Officer – one year on
This summer marked the end of my first year at the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) as the new Development Officer. Whilst I have spent the majority of my life working in the arts, the criminal justice system (CJS) was very new to me, and wow, have I learnt a great deal in this short time. This blog offers a brief reflection on my journey, which has been fast paced, shocking, humbling, motivating, sad, celebratory and encouraging. But never once mundane.
What I’ve been up to
My role has been to promote good practice and build the NCJAA’s network in local regions, with a particular focus on the West Midlands in my first year. With the help of the NCJAA team and our colleagues at Clinks, I have hit the ground running on a number of projects and activities. These have included training courses introducing new practitioners to arts in criminal justice, media training, annual conferences, Practice Development Group meetings in Birmingham and Manchester, and many more.
I have connected with new and existing individuals and organisations in the NCJAA network and experienced a variety of excellent arts in criminal justice projects. I hope to give you just a flavour of these, which have enabled me to advocate for this unique and inspiring work.
Given the fast moving nature of the criminal justice sector, I have had to learn quickly from day one. I was informed at the start of ongoing changes to government ministers and policy. Soon after, I heard our network’s concerns about the introduction of the Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) to prison education commissioning – and the NCJAA has since been tracking how that might change their relationships with prisons. More recently, I have followed swift changes in the direction of sentencing policy leading to the announcement last week that the government plan to legislate so that people convicted of violent and sexual offences serve two thirds of their sentence in custody.
Not long after I joined the NCJAA the Ministry of Justice published its Tackling Race Disparity in the Criminal Justice System 2018: Update, which provided progress on the implementation of the 2017 Lammy Review recommendations. Given the disproportionate numbers of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the CJS and the poorer outcomes they experience compared to their non-BAME counterparts, and the ongoing work undertaken by colleagues at Clinks and across the sector to highlight these issues, the focus and activity being given to them was very encouraging.
However, it has been quite disappointing to learn since, that in 2019 the number of BAME young people in custody reached 51% (up from 40% in 2016), despite this group representing just 18% of the population.
Recently, at an event at Ikon gallery, I was able to ask David Lammy MP what he felt the arts could do to help young people in the criminal justice system, especially those from culturally diverse backgrounds. He answered,
We need some intervention, so that all governors recognise the therapeutic contribution the arts can make.
It felt pertinent and fitting that this conversation took place in Birmingham only months after our own conference, which put a spotlight on how the arts address the needs of young people in the CJS.
It has been my pleasure to see first-hand how the power of arts can also be used to change the lives of adults. Ikon Gallery is just one place that does this very well. Last year I was invited to the exhibition launch of In Place of Hate by artist in residence Edmund Clark at HMP Grendon. This was my first visit to a prison and I was interested to learn all about the prison’s partnership with the gallery. Residents I spoke to told me openly and frankly how drawing and painting altered their feelings and improved their outlook.
I can also recall talks with the governor at HMP Stafford, a prison where creative interventions are embedded in the lives of the men who serve there. He was keen to stress how much the atmosphere and mood changes as a result of the creative workshops and events they run. His ambition is that arts and culture can be used as part of an approach to reduce drug and violence issues.
At HMP Hull, as well utilising the therapeutic benefits of the arts, they are also able to help men develop a range of employability skills that can be crucial upon release. On my visit I saw extremely high standards of work encouraged by the art tutors there. The students at the prison are now creating a large scale piece of work for local charities.
With all these examples, and many more from the past year, I have also seen just how the important the arts are if we aim to change the minds of those on the ‘outside.’ It is my strong belief that championing the work of people marginalised from society and amplifying their voices is important for our collective cultural offer.
Now, I would never want to suggest that the arts are some sort of panacea potion that will bring an end to crime and reoffending or their underlying causes. An individual’s desistance from crime is a long process and a number of factors contribute towards success, such as family support, employment and positive identities – but arts and culture can be powerful tools in this process. I am encouraged by the willingness of some policymakers to understand this and listen to those on the ground. This was evident at our Birmingham conference, where representatives from Arts Council England and the Ministry of Justice spoke honestly with young people and listened to their insight into how the arts can help.
This year I will move my focus further up the country to the North West of England. Here, I hope to meet many more people using the arts in the CJS (please get in touch!) and I will be delivering yet more events, workshops and training in the area.
What is also important to us at the NCJAA is to look at how we can contribute to the development of BAME leaders in the arts and culture and criminal justice sectors in order to address the current imbalance, and I will be prioritising this contribution going forward.
In Jamaican culture, we like to ‘hail up’ (congratulate) people we feel deserve it. So, whilst my word limit here does not allow me to name every single arts organisation, artist or criminal justice professional I have met, I would like to take this opportunity to hail you all up for your work in this field. I, with the rest of the NCJAA team, will aim to continue to do the best to support you over the next year and beyond.
Image: Rebbecca Hemmings at the NCJAA annual meeting 2019, credit Erika Flowers