by Niall Walker
"Prisoners describe the arts as helping them think of themselves as a different person. They create a new label: artist, designer, poet... or even just someone who enjoys going to art galleries."
A collection of work by entrants to the awards. (Image: Koestler Arts)
Society's desires to punish and rehabilitate coexist in all their messy contradictions within the UK criminal justice system. Yet the punitive reality of life in Britain's prisons since Covid-19 swept through the population has been conspicuous.
“Many prisoners cannot leave their cell for hours of the day, with no visits allowed...” explains Fiona Curran, Director of Arts at Koestler Arts, a UK-based prison arts charity. “If you were a mother or father, I can’t imagine how hard that would be.”
It is a tragedy which puts into perspective all of our own experiences of lockdown. Family contact is vital, Fiona says, for any hopes of rehabilitation. This is backed up by a Ministry of Justice report in August 2017, showing that prisoners who kept strong ties with their families while in prison were 39% less likely to reoffend.
Koestler offers over 2000 art awards in 50 categories which people at all levels of the criminal justice system can submit to. Every entrant gets a certificate and many receive a cash prize. The awards are judged by over 100 experts from different fields; in the past, this has included Louis Theroux, Reggie Yates, Grayson Perry, Hot Chip, and many more.
Koestler also holds a number of 'family days' for the public exhibitions that host some of the work submitted to the awards. Fiona believes creativity can be a means of maintaining those vital family bonds, with Koestler paying for families' transport fares and lunch. “A lot of people who come to family day will tell me they’ve never been to an art gallery; but art can be a positive, vibrant activity [the artists] can discuss with their relatives. Lots of entrants say they’ve spoken to their son or daughter about it, and had this real exchange of enthusiasm.”
With reoffending rates remaining at around 30% in the UK, the challenge of encouraging renewal for those released remains significant. Fiona believes art can offer this means of self-rediscovery. “Prisoners describe the arts as helping them think of themselves as a different person. They create a new label: artist, designer, poet... or even just someone who enjoys going to art galleries.”
For these reasons, Koestler Arts are continuing to promote and platform incarcerated artists in the face of the pandemic. “It was never discussed that we wouldn’t do the awards,” says Fiona, “and every entrant will get feedback. Without those teachers it will be a challenge: but it’s the most important thing we do.”
By giving an audience to their creativity, we can offer hope to those who currently sit in unimaginable darkness.
The Koestler Awards have a new deadline: July 7th. With over 50 categories, from music, crafts, writing and painting, there is a space for artists of all varieties within the criminal justice system. Find out more
Niall Walker is the founder and co-editor of the Radical Art Review