How art can help open the future of prisoners to the community - Dr Helen Nichols

Over the course of my career as a criminologist I have consistently had an interest in education in prisons. Having reflected on the impact of my own educational experience on my personal development, I felt driven to understand if such fulfilling and meaningful experiences could be had and valued by people in the significantly challenging setting of the prison.

With a focus on researching the impact of prisons on people who live and work within them, I have had opportunities throughout my career to interact with prisoners, prison officers, teachers, and governors. Arguably the most impactful and memorable experience was delivering education in a high security prison where I taught combined groups of prisoners and university students as a unified cohort.

While prisons are places where people can feel unsafe and overwhelmed, they are also places where positive things can happen. I have worked with prisoners whose natural critical thinking skills have added significant value to academic discussion and debate. Engaging with people with lived experience elevates our ability to know and learn about prisons and the people who live and work within them.

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When visiting prisons, I take the opportunity to meet and talk to staff and prisoners in different settings. As societies within themselves, prisons contain living spaces, learning spaces, gyms, outdoor exercise areas, kitchens and other spaces required in a closed community.

The exterior of HMP Hull pictured in 2015.The exterior of HMP Hull pictured in 2015.
The exterior of HMP Hull pictured in 2015.

The art room in prisons, much like the library, is often a quiet space that facilitates temporary solace and opportunities for personal development. Providing a sense of escape from sometimes overbearing spaces elsewhere in the prison, art rooms and education environments can be places to protect mental wellbeing. Go into any prison art room and you will immediately be taken aback by the talent behind the walls of our prisons. While this should not be surprising, often the positive skills and talents there are overshadowed by convictions and presumptions of skills deficits.

I’m not going to critique prisons here, or the justice system, or why people in prisons are held in such conditions. Such conversations are consistently ongoing elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to offer another reality about prisons and highlight that while the often-reported controversies of prison life are an unfortunate reality, to understand what happens in prisons we have to see the bigger picture. While violence occurs in prison, so too does care and compassion. While staff and prisoners can have conflict, so too can they develop meaningful and sometimes transformative relationships. And while many prisoners have skills deficits, they also have a range of talents, very often hidden from public view.

Art can offer a positive outlet through a variety of forms of artistic expression; painting, pencil work, sculpture and using a variety of media such as charcoal and collage.

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During a visit to HMP Hull last year, I visited the art room. Working towards a variety of accredited qualifications, men were creating pieces which were made more interesting when literally looking behind them. In some cases, old prison bed sheets had been resourcefully stretched to create canvases – recognisable by the pale green material still showing on the reverse. I was also distinctly struck by the passion and enthusiasm of their teacher and the commitment of the learning and skills manager to promote art as a positive activity.

With previous success in developing and formalising prison-university partnerships, I knew this could be a new opportunity to bring the University of Hull together with HMP Hull to engage in meaningful public engagement. We are fortunate at the University to have a beautiful on-campus art gallery with year-round exhibitions. Having pitched an idea to my new colleagues at HMP Hull, we were all in agreement that our partnership created an opportunity to give a platform to the prisoners’ artwork.

Hull has a proud and rich history of arts culture. Annually the Freedom Festival creates a vibrant, carnival-like celebration of art and performance, bringing the city together and welcoming visitors. The University of Hull’s partnership with the Freedom Festival instigated our thinking about drawing on themes from the previous festival to develop a brief for a prisoner art exhibition at the university. Having decided on the theme of ‘isolation’, which appropriately speaks to the prison context, we have opened to the public a free to attend exhibition.

We hope that the exhibition not only showcases the talents of those serving sentences in our prisons that are so often overlooked, but also highlights the importance of bringing together two key social institutions to shine a light on the bigger picture of some of the most hidden spaces in society.

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While prisons are often sites of controversy, they are part of our communities, nonetheless. Showcasing prisoners’ artwork can help to open the prison door, even if only a little, to the community and show that positive things can and do happen in carceral spaces.

Dr Helen Nichols is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Hull.

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