Exhibition of Prisoner Art

How Newick DFAS used art to help prisoners in Lewes Prison

The idea first came to me nearly three years ago during a visit to an art exhibition in Pallant House Gallery,Chichester, which comprised paintings that had been created by people on the margins of society. Each work was accompanied by a short paragraph in which the artist explained just what the process of creating the work had meant to them. Some of these explanations moved me deeply. An idea suddenly came to me. Perhaps I could use the resources of my local NADFAS to encourage prisoners in nearby Lewes Prison to create paintings and drawings, thereby helping them to rediscover a sense of purpose and self belief and thus assisting them to break out of their cycle of criminality and avoid coming back to gaol.  

Our Society had tried hard over recent years, without any conspicuous success, to interest local schools to encourage their pupils to create paintings and drawings. I thought that the techniques we had evolved might bear more fruit if only I could obtain an entree to the authorities in Lewes prison, which is the only custodial prison serving East andWest Sussex.

Making contact with the appropriate people in the prison was neither easy nor quick. Eventually, I succeeded through the good offices of my local County Councillor, Meg Stroude, who was both a personal friend and member of Newick DFAS.

Building on our experience with local schools, my proposition to Governor Robin Eldridge was that our Society would encourage the inmates of Lewes Prison to take up art by our telling them that the best of the paintings and drawings that they created would be turned by our Society, in partnership with a local charity which ran a printing works staffed by mentally disabled young people, into Greetings Cards which we would sell and would donate all the profits to a charity chosen by the prisoners themselves. The Governor endorsed this proposition enthusiastically and secured the total co-operation of the art teachers, who were contracted to the prison.

The effect on the prisoners was dramatic. Participation in the art courses was voluntary. As soon as the word got round that participation would contribute directly to the prisoners’ chosen charity, many more prisoners elected to join the art course – excitingly, most had never picked up a paintbrush before! The prisoners produced more than 120 landscape, wildlife and abstract images as part of this project.  Members of Newick DFAS selected ten of these, which were reproduced as greetings cards. Sales have so far generated profits of more than £300, which will be given to Ronald Macdonald House,Brighton, the charity selected by the prisoners themselves.

This was a most worthwhile exercise, which yielded great benefits to the participating prisoners. I saw for myself that they had taken great pride in having personally created something that in turn helped a worthy cause.  I delighted when in late 2011, the Governor invited Newick DFAS to continue its collaboration with prison art in Lewes.

Our latest collaboration took a new form. We sponsored an exhibition of prisoner art in one of Lewes’s churches as part of Artwave, 2012, a district wide art festival. We held an exhibition of prisoner art in a church in Lewes. It featured paintings, technical drawings produced as part of the Bird Handling NVQ, and material produced by young offenders for an open air performance inBrightonof the recent Glyndebourne production of “The Cunning Little Vixen”. We raised £325 for Homelink, the charity nominated by the prisoners, which provides interest free loans for homeless people to help them access rented accommodation.

Our initiative is already helping some of the prisoners. Speaking at the formal opening of the Artwave Exhibition, Governor Eldridge said that “encouraging prisoners to produce paintings prompts some of them to participate for the first time in other educational activities within the prison which give them new skills to enable them to cope better with life outside on their release.”  As a result of opening the Exhibition, the Chairman of Lewes District Council is actively exploring ways of creating closer links between the District Council and the various charities and agencies working locally to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce the risk of their re-offending.  Closing the Exhibition, the local MP, Norman Baker praised us warmly for our initiative “which will reach prisoners where other initiatives have failed.”

This has been an immensely satisfying project which we are continuing to expand and develop. I very much hope that Societies in other parts of the country will follow in our footsteps and contact their local prisons to harness the powers of creative art to help prisoners and thus to help society. Newick DFAS will be more than happy to share our experiences with any other Society that wishes to go down a similar path.

Ken Jordan, Chairman of Newick DFAS

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