“Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.”
From ‘The Relation of Art to Morals’
by John Ruskin
The Ministry of Justice under Chris Grayling recently published a new Prison Service Instruction detailing a number of changes to the prison system. Many of these changes are designed to encourage prisoners to engage in what they call ‘purposeful activity’ and ‘rehabilitation’. The aim of this is to enable changes in attitudes by requiring prisoners to work for privileges. On one level it is an admirable effort reminiscent of the above quote by John Ruskin. Life without industry is guilt, it’s true. Work purifies the soul. But this very same instruction has other effects too.
This instruction lists all of the items which prisoners are permitted to hold in their possession and, removed from this list, are electric guitars and any acoustic guitars which have metal strings (which are the vast majority). Furthermore, it has become impossible in many jails for prisoners to buy paints and, at HMP Wakefield, prisoners have even had their creative writing taken from them by the security department without any reason being given.
Life without industry is guilt. But industry without art is brutality.
Prisoners are full of creativity. You only need to look at the success of the Koestler awards to see that. But many prisoners actually rely on their creative outlets just to cope with life. It is all very well requiring everyone to work, but what will they do when they’re locked up in their cells? Some might think that we should all just sit and think about what we’ve done, but it is widely known that this does nothing but increase the rates of self-harm and suicide. It is far more effective to allow prisoners an outlet through which to express themselves constructively, producing something positive. If you take our paints, our instruments, even our writing, how are we to do this? And what do you think will happen to those who cannot cope as well as others?
It might make sense if it was based upon sound reasoning, but the reason that has been given for the withdrawal of metal guitar strings is far from sound. The policy lead responsible for this instruction has stated that the reason behind the withdrawal is that the highest ‘e’ string can be used as the point for a home-made tattoo gun. This may or may not be true. I frankly don’t know. But there are plenty of things which can be used for this. Everything from a stripped stereo cable costing as little as £1.99, to a simple pin or a needle from the sewing sets that remain permitted. Even a paper clip filed sharp against a brick wall. There are plenty of those about. So where is the logic in effectively banning guitars?
If you want an effective prison system that encourages change, it isn’t enough to require prisoners to work. You need to accommodate the arts too. The therapeutic benefits are tested and proven. Anything else is just brutality.
But it isn’t too late to change this. Policies are reviewed all the time. If we want to save prison arts it only requires enough people to write to the Ministry of Justice, detailing the damage this does to prisoners themselves, and also to efforts at rehabilitation. If any of you reading this feels able to write one of these letters, or to help in any other way, please do. This isn’t something prisoners can challenge alone.