Creative expression can help prisoners' emotions surface in a safe way

At first glance, they could be A-level art exam entries, or the outcome of an evening class. But the creative minds behind these works of art have a history of violence, even murder. The works are the fruit of pioneering art psychotherapy, which aims to understand and heal some of society's most dangerous minds.

"We're working with people who come from backgrounds of serious abuse," says art therapist Kate Rothwell. "Art therapy provides a unique opportunity for repressed, poorly understood and destructive emotions to surface in a safe way."

The unorthodox therapy is one of many new approaches being discussed at a gathering of psychiatrists, academics and police officers in Edinburgh next weekend.

The 20th annual conference of the International Association for Forensic Psychotherapy, subtitled "Murder in Mind", will see psychiatrists from British hospitals including Broadmoor and London's Portman Clinic sharing platforms with international experts and academics in the field of psychoanalysis.

Organisers insist that the conference will be more than just a talking shop. Professor James Gilligan, an American psychiatrist who has advised the UN and the Clinton administration on how to reduce violence in the community, will argue that understanding and helping those who have killed benefits everyone.

"Forensic psychotherapy approaches violence as a problem in public health," he says. "It should not be about how much we can punish an offender, but what we can learn from them to prevent others from acting in the same way."

Scotland has already turned these ideas into practice. DCI John Carnochan, who will speak at the conference, leads Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit. "Even with the most effective police force in the world, you will not achieve significant reductions in violence across society; you'll just be keeping a lid on it," he says. "The police need to be involved in strategies to prevent crime happening in the first place."