Cutting crime is an art best practised in prison

Creative activities give inmates self-respect, says Judge Stephen Tumim
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The Independent Online
The majority of people in prison are young men without enough education or family life in their backgrounds to give them the knowledge or self-respect to lead useful lives.Their crimes involve drink, drugs and motor cars.

So to cut the crime rate, we must educate them morally and socially so that there is a better prospect of their behaving properly in the future. They will need to get and hold down jobs. They will need to be able to read and write and count, and to use their brains and hands in combination.

Prisons are noisy and overcrowded places. Prisoners are continuously under stress of one kind or another. One system of improvement is the practice of the arts: theatre, drawing and painting, writing, craft and music. All demand concentration and reward the increasing skill of the performer. Theatre may have the most value - teamwork, words, speech, music, visual themes are all needed. The acquisition of even a modest skill gives satisfaction and self-respect.

So the first purpose of the arts in prison is to help with the main purpose of imprisonment: the reduction of future crime. Art in prison is a legitimate instrument for healing wounds. Most prisoners arrive to serve their sentences bitter and confused. From practising an art they derive a sense of order.

It is interesting to see what our greatest art therapist, the late Edward Adamson, had to say. He practised for many years in a mental hospital rather than a prison. But the principles he worked out and applied would be fit for hospital or prison.

He understood the importance of providing a sanctuary, a space in which the connection could be made between creativity and healing. His genius lay in his ability to create the "enabling space". He was a believer in what Jung called "the art of letting things happen".

Edward Adamson believed in the teacher not teaching but being as passive as possible, and never attempting to interpret the person's work, particularly when he or she was painting. He did not want pictures designed to please him but work designed to express quite freely the dynamics of the person's thoughts. They were tools for diagnosis by the doctors, but were also sharp and original works in their own right.

The best prison paintings give the prisoner some self-esteem. They help him counter the gloom of the prison. Their effect is to make him less likely to return to crime.

The effect on the artist is more interesting than the effect on the viewer. I recently judged a competition at a large London prison. There were three winners. One had painted an illustration to Wuthering Heights, with Heathcliff as a ghost crossing a stream followed by the heroine.

"Why a ghost?" I asked. He explained at great length, but fairly convincingly, and then poured out the story of the murder he had committed, and his mental condition, the belief of a secure mental hospital that they could treat him successfully, the inexplicable transfer to a prison, the lack of further treatment. The painting and the prize he won for it had got him out of the stupor and got him thinking more clearly.

Another winner was a young man who had made a most accurate model of a caravan from matchsticks. He told me it was his family caravan. He was a gypsy, and he had lived in it in what he thought of as his peaceful period before his first offence. He wanted, he said, to return home.

The third winner was an enormous young man from Uganda. He had painted vast woods and forests in the style - slightly - of Gainsborough, and with the skies in the manner of Constable. How do you come to choose this style? I asked. "I am really an 18th-century man," he said. Rousseau would have been interested. He was recovering only very slowly from a drug-induced illness.

The succession of plays, mainly musicals, performed in the London prisons with the help of Pimlico Opera and other benefactors, has been remarkably impressive. I liked in particular the catalogues where the performers record their views of life. Listen to this one:

"I was born in St Anne's Bay, Jamaica. My mum and dad had me at an early age, she was 16 and my dad was 18. My dad died when I was four years old. My mum came to England when she was 20 to study to be an accountant. I stayed in Jamaica with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. When I was seven my mum came back to Jamaica to get me, which made me really happy because by that time I was always getting a beating and I was thinking that she didn't want me.

"Coming to this country was a big shock, but I got used to it. My first day at school was a disaster. It started as a fight and when I finally got kicked out of school, it was for stabbing a teacher. I had just turned 12 years old in secondary school. After that it was children's homes then prisons. I started coming to prison because of the violence, but I soon met up with the wrong crowd and I started taking drugs and getting into more crime. That's why I am at Wandsworth now. At the moment I am trying to channel all my energy into something positive, West Side Story. The main reason is because everyone that I am working with are sensible and fun to work with. I am enjoying myself very much. I would like to say thanks."

"Prison art" is a misleading phrase. There is no art unique to prisoners. But if we believe prisons are intended to help prisoners lead law-abiding and useful lives, then we must recognise that we will not succeed without provision for the arts.

Yet government policy appears to involve saving money and looking for votes by cutting down on education and the arts in prison. That is the way to increase crime.

The writer was, until last year, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. He will be the keynote speaker at the second European Conference on Theatre and Prison, which opens at Manchester University on Wednesday.