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How are Museums working with Prisons, Ex-Offenders and exploring the justice system?

Prisoners and ex-offenders have a complex set of needs. These need to be met in order for them to be effectively rehabilitated into society. Museums can play a role in meeting some of these needs. They can help ex-offenders adjust to life out of prison. They can also provide learning experiences and help offenders gain new skills. Some museum programmes also provide art therapy for current and ex-offenders.

There are currently over 2.2 million Americans currently in prison. There is also a significant number of ex-offenders and convicted felons amongst the population. Often the ratio of ex-offenders is higher in vulnerable or minority groups. Although a prison sentence serves as a punishment, it also needs to have a rehabilitation element. This is to prevent prisoners from re-offending on their release. Rehabilitation schemes include efforts to provide education and training. They can also take the form of community service projects. Crime is not a straightforward issue, and there are many reasons why a person might commit a crime. For example, prisoners may have mental health issues or substance abuse problems. They also might be more likely to come from a vulnerable background. There are many programmes that aim to help prisoners face up personal issues. These can often include some kind of art therapy or involvement in culture and heritage.

Prisoners and art therapy

Adjusting to life after a prison sentence is not easy, particularly if the person has been incarcerated for a long time. Ex-offenders face a great deal of stigma and other barriers to re-entering society. It can be difficult to find a job and a place to live. It can also be hard to feel like a valuable part of the community again.

Art by offenders

The Koestler Arts Centre is a London venue with a difference. The organisation behind it is dedicated to helping prisoners and ex-offenders change their lives by taking part in the arts. The Koestler Trust is a charity that works with a variety of organisations and individuals. It aims to challenge people’s ideas of what an ex-offender is capable of.

The Trust partners with many organisations including arts venues, museums and galleries. It also works with other groups such as victim support charities, young offenders teams, and probation services. It believes that engagement with the arts helps offenders and ex-offenders live more positive lives. The charity works to showcase art created by detainees, secure patients and released prisoners. As well as supporting offenders, this work helps to change public opinion and challenge stigma.

One of the key initiatives run by the Trust is the Koestler Awards. This is an awards scheme which recognises works of art by prisoners. Over 3,000 people submit pieces to the awards scheme each year. It covers over 50 categories. Offenders can enter work from a wide range of mediums. This includes animation, writing, fine art, crafts, film and more. 90% of entrants will get detailed feedback on their entry. There is over £30,000 available in cash prizes ranging from £20 to £100. The Trust says, “By entering the Koestler Awards entrants can gain recognition for their achievements, get feedback on how to develop their creative work and gain motivation to work to a deadline. Many entrants use Awards or sales money to buy further arts materials or pay for courses.” The Trust runs other programmes in addition to the awards. These include mentoring schemes, exhibitions and art sales.

Many museums have interacted with the artwork created as part of the Koestler Awards. For example, Liverpool Museums co-created an exhibition of competition entries. It worked with a group of young ex-offenders on the project. The young people were free to select pieces for the exhibition. The final pieces were chosen from a collection of over 600 entries from the North West of the UK.

The exhibition, “Safety Net of Sky”, was on display at Liverpool’s World Museum in 2012. As part of the project, the young people were given training. Guidance came from professional curators. This gave them a chance to learn new skills, and to feel like a part of the cultural community. It was also an opportunity for them to build self-confidence. For ex-offenders, the chance to make connections and to have a voice in the community can make a huge difference. By engaging with the Koestler Awards, museums can help the trust to communicate its message. They can show the kind of quality art that offenders are capable of. This helps to challenge people’s pre-conceived ideas.

A museum on the move

Staffordshire County Council’s museum service, in the UK, launched an interesting scheme in order to connect with young offenders within the prison system. Along with the council’s prison library service, the museum team looked at ways that its collections could be used to engage young offenders. They decided to expand on an existing programme, Museum on the Move, in order to reach them. Museum on the Move is a partnership programme. It is managed by the county museum services in Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.

The Museum on the Move buses provide an outreach service for many different community groups. For example, schools and residential homes. The buses also visit shows and fairs in the area. They are accessible, interactive and multisensory. Once the museum had established the correct permissions and security clearances needed to bring a Museum on the Move bus into the prisons, the sessions were carefully designed. Museum and prison library staff worked together on the project. They wanted to create an experience that the young offenders could connect to. For many, it was the first time they had visited a museum. The programme provided an opportunity for them to engage with arts and culture. It also gave them a chance to talk with other people who were not a part of the prison world. Many of the young people enjoyed the project.

Brain Gyms

The number of older prisoners is on the rise. Many institutions don’t have the specialist knowledge to meet the needs of this group. Keeping the brain active is key for good health and wellbeing as people get older. This is as true for offenders as it is for the population as a whole. To help keep older offenders mentally fit, one UK museum teamed up with a prisoners’ wellbeing charity. Together they created a prison ‘brain gym’ scheme. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery and RECOOP worked with older prisoners at Exeter and Dartmoor prisons. RECOOP works to improve the care, resettlement and rehabilitation of older prisoners. The charity says that prisoners over 50 are especially likely to have physical or mental health issues. More than 80% of older prisoners have longstanding illnesses or disabilities. Over 50% suffer from a mental disorder and 30% have a diagnosis of depression.

RAMM ran four sessions at the prisons. These included presentations and object handling activities. One of the topics the museum staff presented was the story of St Nicholas Priory. This building was part of Exeter’s first medieval monastery. It is now run by RAMM as an authentic Elizabethan town house. The visits were designed to spark discussions on a variety of topics. Inmates joined the conversation readily. They spoke about a range of subjects from local history and culture, to building projects.

The museum says that the project was a good way of connecting with this section of the prison population. It helped to contribute to their health and wellbeing. Reflecting on the project, the museum website concludes, “This is an extreme illustration of how a museum and its objects can provide a completely non-institutional focus for people who need to build confidence and skills in their transition to a healthier, more independent life.”

Museums exploring the justice system

People who are in prison tend to be an overlooked and often ignored sector of society. One US museum held an exhibition which aimed to counteract this by exploring the topic of the justice system in greater depth. The exhibition was entitled “It’s Not Just Black and White”. It was a residency by the artist Gregory Sale, and it took place at the Arizona State University Art Museum.

The museum showcased a variety of pieces in different mediums. These included dance, film and performance. People were involved from all sides of the US justice system, from staff and inmates to community groups. The idea was to explore how the topic can spark a wide range of viewpoints, perspectives and values. By starting a dialogue, the exhibition was able to look at conflicting ideas and opinions. The museum also invited key figures from the public debate around the US justice system to take part.

Museums working with prisons

One strand of the exhibition was called “Pearls”. This consisted of collaborative artistic projects. These engaged with people in the prison and got them involved in artistic endeavours. Alongside this was a fact-based strand entitled “(re)SEARCH”. This part of the project aimed to educate visitors about aspects of the modern prison system. Local organisations and individuals also had access to a shared space as part of the exhibition. This allowed some public programming around the topic. Relevant parties held classes, workshops and performances exploring themes of law and justice.

Prison life and the museum

There are many museums around the world that explore the history of imprisonment. For example, institutions such as San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island and Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol. These allow visitors an insight into the prison experience. They may focus on particular periods of history, or serve as a way for people to put themselves in the shoes of prisoners throughout the ages.

Museums can chart the way that treatment of offenders has changed throughout history. They can also do important work around educating the public about the justice system. Museums can challenge prejudices and the stigma of incarceration through exhibitions and events.

Educating offenders has been shown to reduce rates of reoffending. In addition to this, uptake of education and rehabilitation schemes is high, when they are available and affordable. Having the ability to learn new skills or stay engaged with learning while in prison is key. It gives people a higher chance of finding employment on release. It can also boost morale, confidence and motivation. Museums can assist with the creation and delivery of educational outreach programmes.

Emotional and mental health treatment is also a key element of successful rehabilitation. Schemes which use art therapy and object handling can be a helpful part of this treatment. Museums can provide an opportunity for offenders to engage with the arts and cultural heritage.

About the author – Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.

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