Last month I highlighted the recent changes in the prison service which were resulting in prison arts coming under threat. Electric guitars and acoustic guitars with metal strings have already been removed from the national list of permitted items, paints and other arts and hobbies supplies are near impossible to obtain in many prisons, a startling number of prisoners have had their creative writing taken or withheld by prison staff for undefined ‘security reasons’, and drama courses are now virtually unheard of in most prisons.
Since writing this post I have spoken to a number of other prisoners here at Wakefield who have been affected by this and, after some discussion, we all agreed that something had to be done. Unfortunately, when prisoners organise a petition or other collective action inside prisons we are often placed on report for ‘incitement’. However, the same does not apply on the outside. For that reason I have now set up an online petition aiming to convince the Ministry of Justice to reconsider their approach to prison arts. And that’s where I need your help. Prisoners cannot sign it. I can’t even sign it myself. But you can. So please, think of all of those who rely on prison arts just to cope with being in jail. Think of those who spend all of their time and money on creating something positive only to have it stamped on. Sign the petition. You can make a real difference to hundreds, even thousands of lives.
The petition can be found at https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-prison-arts
Here are a few of the lives you could help save:
“I’ve been drawing for years now and have really improved. Art serves as a key way for me to express myself in a positive way,” said Steve. “Having a reliable way to buy art supplies is paramount to maintaining a good level of creativeness and a positive future outlook. But often our orders are excessively delayed by unnecessary prison bureaucracy. It’s a real shame that such artistic energy, for myself and others, is diminished by something as small as reliable access to a dependable source of supplies.”
Mark also has problems with art supplies. “I’ve been doing hobbies since 2011,” he said. “I’ve found it a good way to pass those long hours locked in a cell. I soon grew to enjoy working with matches and then progressing on to projects using veneer. It’s an outlet for my frustrations and it’s helped me learn that it’s better to be creative than destructive. But now it’s getting harder and harder to get the materials I need. The selection available is becoming more and more limited and the delays in deliveries leave me back where I started; locked behind my door with nothing to do but think about everything that has gone wrong in my life.”
One anonymous prisoner also had problems with his hobbies. “I practised for years to build up some skill with model making. Then one day I had a cell search and the officers took one of the models I had made off me. They said it was too good. They wouldn’t believe I had made it in my cell and said I must have made it in one of the prison workshops and taken it out without permission. They still haven’t let me have it back. And all because I did a good job on it.”
Some prisons allow prisoners to make items in the workshops but charge them if they want to keep it. “I made a clock”, said one prisoner. “I was really happy with the job I had done and asked how much I had to pay to keep it. They said I could have it for £50 but they only pay me £14 a week to live on. I couldn’t afford it and had to let it go. Instead they sold it to a member of the public. It wasn’t until later that I found out they had priced it up for public sale at just £20. How can it be right for me to put all the work in and then to have to pay more than double the price just to keep what I made?”
Colin does various arts in prison. “I’ve been painting for years,” he told me. “But I used to do a lot of creative writing too. I cut it back a year or two ago when I had some problems. The creative writing teacher asked me to write two short stories about a disillusioned nurse and a music loving dentist. When I did, the security department got hold of it and claimed I was writing about prison staff. I explained that it was just fiction but they wouldn’t listen. I was suspended from education and I never got my writing back. I’ve had a similar thing with my painting too. I submitted some work into the Koestler competition and won an award. Now the prison wants to hold a presentation. I don’t mind whether they do or don’t but they’re saying that they won’t let me get my paintings back until they’ve had it. I just want my work back.”
One prisoner said that he had previously painted pictures for charity. “That was until I moved prisons,” he said. “This prison refuses to let me send them out. I’m only trying to help out a small charity. You’d think they’d encourage that.”
Nathan has spent over £3,000 on musical equipment. “I bought a guitar, an amp, pedals, cables, all sorts,” he told me. “Now I stand to lose it all because they’ve changed what we are allowed in possession. I wouldn’t mind but I only get paid £20 a week. I had to save for ages to buy all this.” He has been playing the guitar since he was 15. “I taught myself. It became a big part of my life. I’ve had a guitar in my cell ever since my first days in custody and it really helps me cope with my sentence. It’s a really creative and educational outlet. I’m still improving and I’ve even written my own compositions. I don’t know what I’ll do when they take it off me. It’s going to leave me feeling very down. There are a lot of poor copers in prison. What are we supposed to do?”
Another prisoner told me that he uses his guitar to help him cope too. “I had a stroke in 2000,” he said. “The doctors said I needed to keep my left hand side active or it would deteriorate. So I bought a guitar. I bought three actually. The first one I bought was too wide for my left hand to cope with so I donated it to the prison chaplaincy so they can lend it to someone who can’t afford one for themselves. Then I got a second one but that one wasn’t much better so I donated that too. Now I’ve got the one I really wanted. It’s perfect and I find it really relaxing. Recently I lost my father. It’s helped me get through it. If I hadn’t had it then, well I don’t know. The prison staff say that, when they take it, I can always buy an acoustic guitar with nylon strings, but they’ll only let us order from one shop and that shop only sells one brand, which isn’t suitable for me because they are too wide for my left hand. Even the ones I donated have been withdrawn. I can’t get them back. They’ll probably be destroyed. And Billy Brag just donated loads of guitars to the prison too. They’ve all got metal strings so they can’t be issued. They’re probably going to get smashed up too.”
One of the prisoners is serving a life sentence. “I won’t get out for years,” he said. “Not until the parole board say I can go home. If they take my guitar, with they give me my money back for it? One of the prison service orders say that they have to, but the officers are saying that they won’t. So when will I get it back? When I get out? That can’t be right.”
Another prisoner told me about his experiences with drama. “When I first came to prison I was really excited to see that they were running a drama course. For the first time in my life I could express myself and I felt like people were really listening. I’ve never had that before. But that was over a decade ago. I haven’t been on a drama course since. They just don’t run any more. It’s strange because, at Wakefield, the education staff tell us that they can’t get funded for many arts based courses. They say they can only run courses for five weeks at a time and there’s nothing above level two. Especially not GCSEs or A levels. But the education provider here is the same one as at most other prisons and they get funded for all sorts in some other places. It makes no sense. I suffer from depression and I think I’d feel much better if I had a way to express myself again. I really miss that connection you have with the audience. I don’t have much support on the outside and, without being able to make that connection, I can’t help feeling alone in the world. These days I don’t really live, I just sit and count off the days until its over.”