Inside, in the lemon waiting room, a large clock ticks off the seconds of the life sentences of those ordinary murderers and manslaughterers who form the bulk of the prison's population. Beneath, with splendid piety, a notice spells out the duties of the Prison Service, in case any visitor who had heard, for example, the recorded voices of Strangeways' warders chanting 'Beasts, beasts, beasts' to their rioting charges, had gleaned a wrong impression.
'Our duty is to look after them with humanity and to help them lead law- abiding and useful lives in custody and after release,' it reads.
Humour in our penal system is, of course, still largely unconscious. Our small party announced itself to the wardens, one by one. 'Jocelyn Herbert.' 'Bridget Astor.' 'Ian Tregarthen Jenkin.' Our group sounded uncomfortably like a cast list from Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. It is difficult to enter a prison without remembering, with a shudder, how many generations of men and women of the middle classes have exercised their best intentions upon the 'poor unfortunates' in prison in the past - and how little improvement has resulted.
One of these well-intentioned ones was Arthur Koestler, though Mr Koestler had more grassroots experience than most, having been in two prison camps, and tried, as an alien, the hospitality of Pentonville during the Second World War. It was to judge his memorial prizes for art and crafts that this party had journeyed to Kingston prison last week. We were let through the gate. To the right was a dreadful attempt at cheeriness in geraniums, which only succeeded in highlighting the starkness of Tarmac and stone. On a hummock of turf, the word 'Welcome' was spelled out in bare earth.
Keys jangled, locks turned. We passed into the prison craftroom. A man in Wormwood Scrubs had stitched in bright tapestry the apposite plea: 'Bless this House, Lord.' On one side of us was a baby's layette in fine white wool, created by a patient at Broadmoor. It is hard not to fear that some prison art and 'therapeutic' craft may be woolliness, too, a mere loopy distraction while real problems, including basic education (half of all prisoners, according to a Home Office estimate, have problems just reading and writing) go unaddressed.
Nearby were some models, sponsored by Bryant and May, including a 3ft-long paddle steamer made entirely from matchsticks. Since at least the Napoleonic wars, prisoners have been gluing thousands of matchsticks together. Around the corner was a silent commentary on this pursuit. A young man in Risley had etched a piece showing a wild punk youth, one eye apparently gouged out, manically gluing together a model church.
Robert Farquhar, one of the judges, was gazing at this with marked sympathy. 'Whenever you see a matchstick model in a house, you tend to think: 'oh, you've been inside, then',' he said. There was a reason for the sympathy. Mr Farquhar spent 30 years inside in the course of his old profession as villain and jewel thief. During this period he took up painting and won the Koestler Award three times. 'Prison's like bloody boarding school,' he said. 'The Governor calls you in, he's pleased you've put his prison on the map. And that's you popular for a bit, and then it's 'you're nicked' again.'
Mr Farquhar is now 54, and runs an art gallery near Victoria Station: it is six years since he was inside, except as a Koestler judge, but his memories are not all bad.
'Prison was a school of art,' he said, gazing at a painting by a prisoner from Ashwell - 'Last Day in the Workshop' - of a distorted face in a striped top gazing fruitlessly down at his machine. 'It's like a monastic existence - you're not worried about the rent.'
The paintings submitted were not wholly monastic. Several showed naked females, including a black woman with an encouraging expression holding a rocket launcher. One of the judges stopped by a painting from Cookham Wood women's prison of yellow and red butterflies spinning in a rainbow between a woman's thighs. 'Extraordinary. What an extraordinary concept]' he said.
Judge Stephen Tumim, Inspector of Prisons, gazed over his trademark half- moon spectacles at a portrait of a Leeds prisoner in his cell. 'I must say, some of these pictures are marvellously dotty,' he said. On first meeting, the Inspector of Prisons can give a similar impression, but his reports on the prison system, which have consistently embarrassed the Home Office, show how deceptive his spectacles are.
The party gathered to gaze at the cartoons. Behind loomed the Victorian cell blocks, their tiny windows blocked with modern mesh. It prevents prisoners throwing the contents of their chamber pots or underpants straight from their unplumbed cells.
Judge Tumim, whose campaign for more lavatories has been one of the triumphs of his office so far, picked up a cartoon by Peter Cameron, of Full Sutton, showing a man hallucinating a small pink elephant.
'He should be given a prize,' he said.
'But you haven't seen the rest yet]' said the organiser, handing him the pile of submissions. 'Yes, a very judgely comment,' admitted Judge Tumim, adjusting his glasses in a slightly chastened manner.
They returned to the paintings. One of the winners was by Dean Byrne: a huge, 5ft 5in wide study of yellow fields below a whirling sky in blue and white. It looked almost possible to walk into it through to the open air.
'This man has really got something,' said Jocelyn Herbert, a stage designer. Judge Tumim had other thoughts: 'I'm surprised there's room to do that in Brixton,' he said, turning to Philip, a life prisoner helping with the show. 'Have you ever been to Brixton?' he asked. 'Don't go. That's my advice.'
Robert Farquhar prepared to leave. He did not strike me as a sentimental character, but he had no doubts, he said, about the usefulness of art in prison. 'Apart from anything else, when they're encouraged to let rip - express themselves, you know - you find they're not bashing you up.'
And then they let us walk out at will, past the caged birds, the dreary Tarmac exercise yard, past the great doors, into the welcome open air.
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