Car pollution cloys like sweat-drenched clothing to the faux Grecian façade of Pentonville Prison; a steady reminder of its internal tragedy. This B-cat prison is the holding bay for men undone by the Aristotelean touch; once the kings of the streets, the masterful rulers of society’s unkempt underbelly, now a statistic.
These are the men who couldn’t break the Kevlar-plated class ceiling, stuck in a vicious circle of unemployment and profitable criminality. One fifth of prisoners in England and Wales reoffended up to fifteen times last year, but rather than investing in much needed rehabilitation, Chris Grayling has successfully swept prison funding under his budget cut carpet of more than £274 million. Prisoners have been left literally high, dry and violently frustrated.
The Justice Minister has cataclysmically underestimated the importance of learning and art as rehabilitation, mistaking cultural outreach as a privilege. Grayling’s reductive management is most apparent in the ban on books being sent into prison. Thankfully, the Howard League for Penal Reform has successfully over-turned the book ban by judicial review. Creative expression can replace the use of learned destructive behaviour; indeed commissioning editor of Not Shut Up magazine and former prison governor Marek Kazmierski believes having a creative outlet is “life-savingly essential.” According to him, if creativity is the opposite of destructivity, then removing all arts provision from prisons turns those inside them, both inmates and staff, into dangerous, destructive, caged monsters. However, Grayling’s proposed starving of prison resources proves the Justice Minister is out of touch. As Sam Miller, an art therapist at Pentonville laments, “rehabilitation is long and politics is short.” Incentive for rehabilitation reform is only as powerful as a politician’s poll rating.
Not-for-profit organisation Art Saves Lives director and ex-Pentonville inmate, Dean Stalham, has personally experienced the cathartic effect of art as rehabilitation. Dean was once Guy Ritchie’s wet dream: a gangster from Cricklewood done for defrauding major credit card companies and shifting stolen art worth millions, a glamorous ex Page 3 model wife in tow. He was and still is an entrepreneur, though his motives have changed. Where once Stalham saw art, he saw dollar signs. Now he sees opportunity for personal transformation. His epiphany came when he painted a Warholian-esque Mickey Mouse at Wandsworth Prison that: “transcended the walls and the barbed wire and made it onto the walls of The London Assembly Rooms. It was then that I realised that art is, above all, about effective communication and enhanced lives.” His art preceded his release; a fragment of him was free from the destructivity of prison.
In recent months, Dean has been diagnosed dyslexic, an example of the one in five inmates with learning difficulties. He believes his lack of educational support drove him to criminality; he was a young man looking to find acceptance, a community unavailable to him in the world of traditional education. Stalham claims, “middle class dyslexics go to art school, working class dyslexics go to prison,” which serves as a damning yet painfully truthful indictment on a society bolstered by seemingly immutable labelling. Despite his success, Stalham refuses to accept that the minimal art classes he received in prison were satisfactorily rehabilitative, believing that: “the justice system can not take one iota of credit for what I have achieved.” Prisons are simply not doing enough.
“The common misconception is that economically viable business models are not synonymous with creative rehabilitation, whereas the two often fall hand in hand.”
The justice system can choose the carrot or the stick. Do you proverbially beat the prisoner into submission, or entice them into opportunity, showing them life on the right side of the rulebook? The common misconception is that economically viable business models are not synonymous with creative rehabilitation, whereas the two often fall hand in hand. Without art, aggressive behaviour is consecrated, not redirected. This leads to one of art therapist Sam Miller’s greatest worries: in 2013-14, incidents of prisoner self-harm drastically rose to 17,474, according to the most recent HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales Annual Report. Another outlet for distressed, disillusioned prisoners at Pentonville is setting their cells on fire. Miller believes Islington City Council send a fire engine out once a week for this reason, costing approximately £4000 to the taxpayer each run. Grayling has built an ill-fitting monetary dam with sterling flowing like angered lava from the inefficient justice system. By cutting officer numbers at Pentonville, to just under half the necessary amount per prisoner, lockdown time is increased and art lessons are inevitably few and far between. Art remains the inaccessible, unpolished diamond in the rough.
We can outcast our fellow human beings to prisons representative of failed governance and education, or we can recognize that us Joe Public could contribute to a society focused on re-integration over loaded labelling. We could see artistic rehabilitation for what it is – not a left wing conspiracy to molly-coddle criminals, but a chance for them to change. Art can save our justice system; art can save lives.