I taught Art for 14 years in several male prisons in the south west. My experiences in each prison were very different; usually dependent on the ‘category.’ The most rewarding teaching was on the prison ship on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, and HMP Shepton Mallet (a lifers’ prison.) I spent seven years at both prisons; and both are now closed.
The work was never easy; but I doubt anyone would expect it to be. Sometimes, it felt like you were walking a thin tightrope between the inmates, the prison officers & the college that employed the teachers. You had to be ever aware of the tight security measures; that could often be breached, if you were not fully on your guard. Over the seven year period at one prison, six colleagues were unceremoniously marched to the gate, and had to hand in their keys. Fortunately, I left on my own volition and escaped that humiliation; though came close to it twice. There could always be someone who could stab you in the back (metaphorically speaking….or not.) It could be a prison officer, who took a dislike to you, an inmate you had rebuked for stealing art supplies, or even a jealous colleague, because you had been offered more contractual hours.
A prison teacher is employed by a college, who is contracted by the government, to deliver the education programme. HMP Shepton Mallet, was a Lifers’ prison; and because of the very lengthy sentences, the variety of classes on offer was a lot broader than other prisons I had worked in. In particular, the arts curriculum was well catered for; to include – Art, Drama, Music Technology and Computer Arts. All classes had to be structured to accredited courses, and the teachers had to meet annual targets. Mine was fifty per. year at Level 2, which was attainable.
Over my seven years of teaching there; a large number of the men stayed within my class; which could be problematic in that many of them had progressed beyond a Level 2; and although Level 3 was not discouraged; it was not pushed by the college, because government funding stops at Level 2. However, there was encouragement to progress from other quarters, in particular, The Koestler Trust; an excellent body that runs an annual Open Exhibition for all the prisons in the country; yet also provided Art Mentors to certain highly talented inmates. I was proud to have taught two men that benefitted from this service. The men loved Koestler! It gave them an opportunity to show off their work to a huge audience in London; with the possibility of being awarded a prize in the numerous categories available on show. The buzz around the department during Koestler results week was palpable!
Obviously our education budget must have been generous, as in all my years of teaching there, I was never denied a request for art materials. However, I had to be circumspect before I requested certain items! There were some obvious ones that even non prison teachers would not consider; for example Quick Drying Modelling Clay:
‘Hey miss, look at this wonderful key I’ve just made!’
However, there were less obvious items – that I would have to Google first. ‘Miss, I can’t possibly finish this, until I get some Gold Leaf,’ or ‘I need waterproof black ink/ marbling Inks/ Blu Tac,’ etc, etc. Black Ink is used for self tattooing and apparently Blu Tac induces a high when chewed!
The most lively and original artwork came from the short term inmates; particularly from those I taught on the Prison Ship. It was Graffiti, Celtic, Surrealist, Abstract; whereas the Lifers at Shepton tended towards more ‘Chocolate box’ images; scenes of cottages, country and sea. They were also more interested in perfecting the techniques of painting. I could persuade the younger men to try out more innovative ways of approaching art; but the elder tended to be more stubborn & viewed various creative exercises as akin to ‘play school.’
On the prison ship, the men were noisy, vociferous and playful; with masses of street-cred. They could also be angered easily; usually by another inmate; and often after a trifling incident – such as sitting in someone’s chair. ‘Oi muppet, get out of my chair.’ In fact, the panic button was a daily occurrence on the ship. If you happened to be on the stairs, you would have to squeeze flat against the wall, as a mass body of uniforms surged past. It was a lively place to work; full of drama and tension, but what I most remember, is the humour. On my first week there, two inmates were at the water machine, making tea. One said ‘Cor, what’s that then?’ The other replied, ‘ it’s passion fruit, miss gave it me.’ ‘Well, that’ll put lead in your pencil.’ ‘Yeah’ he replied, ‘trouble is, I’ve got no one to write to.’
Working at Shepton, was a very different experience. It was a calm, subdued environment. The men were routine oriented and disliked changes. Overall, they were an intelligent bunch; yet could also be cunning and highly manipulative. The teachers had access to inmates’ files; but I rarely used them. Mostly, it was best not to know their crimes; though on occasion the manager would be compelled to advise us in advance if there could be a likelihood of any threat to our safety. In my seven years there, I did not have need to use the panic button; though I had to file many security reports.
From personal experience, I believe that the arts provide a vital and necessary rehabilitative service within prisons. I witnessed innumerable inmates who benefitted from the simple act of drawing and painting. Those that tended towards aggressive behaviour became more passive and sociable; and those that lacked self esteem became more confident over time – just because they had created a picture they were proud of!
Words by: Marian Young
Read about Prison Art from an inmate’s perspective: “I cannot imagine how I would have coped without my art” by Julio Cesar Osorio
Categories: Art Therapy