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'Art can be a way in…'

The Open College of the Arts works with the Prisoners’ Education Trust to enable students in prison to access our courses. It is an important part of our charitable purpose and student fees are met by a combination of OCA bursaries and grants from the Trust. As this work is largely invisible to other students (and indeed to some of our tutors) we thought it would be worth talking to Pat Jones, Chief Executive of the Trust, about why this work is important.
These are interesting times for prison education in England. The pressure on public spending would lead you to to expect that prison education would suffer. However, the frankly unexpected comments from the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in July on the prison system do give grounds for optimism. Pat argues that art can be a way in, that people who see themselves as offenders can forge an new identity through art. This is an argument which convinces me. The alternative doesn’t really bear contemplation – the UK prison population has already doubled in a generation.
Our second video is of Akiel Chinelo, who reflects on his experience of prison and reads two extracts from his work. Some people may be surprised at his observation that prison provides the means to shut the rest of the world out, and possibly angered at the notion of prison as an opportunity. But if prison isn’t to be an opportunity, what possible hope is there for rehabilitation?
[Akiel is currently working on a novel through the Writing 3: Advanced course]

Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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12 thoughts on “'Art can be a way in…'

  • I enjoyed this clip very much, it’s very inspiring and it reaches really deep into my heart that someone can see light where all seems to be a very dark society. Well done, and wish well Akiel.

  • The clips show there is genuine commitment, enthusiasm and benefits for ‘prisoners’ to study in this and other creative ways. This can only be positive to the whole of society in the long-run. And Akiel’s story brought this to life beautifully.
    Just thought I’d ask, knowing its unlikely, but wondered what the chances are of having the opportunity to photograph these budding ‘invisible’ artists? I’m not sure whether this would even be allowed or logistically possible, but the title of this post just created an itch that I wanted to scratch!!

  • I think this is possibly one of the best videos so far. Akiel’s reading of his work was fabulous and his interview was great. I really appreciate being able to see and hear how others perform their work on these videos.

  • Yiannitsa, Marmalade and Eunica – thank you for the feedback, I also think they are amongst our best videos to date. Mark has done a great job, and it is always encouraging to see that others appreciate what we do.
    On your question Marmalade, I think that photographing OCA students in prison would be a logistical nightmare. They are spread thinly though the prison system and negotiating access is done at the prison level. If however the idea was to photograph prisoner art students in a prison the project might become feasible. For work likely to make the media access is decided at the national Ministry of Justice level. However for a personal project as part of the level 2 Social Documentary or a level 3 course, the local prison Governor has the discretion to grant access. It would require a well thought through project plan – such as is developed with the tutor for the level 3 Advanced course. An ad-hoc, ‘can I come in and take some photos/’ approach would get very short shrift.
    It would take time, possibly lots of time, to negotiate.
    If a student at level 2 or level 3 wanted to do such a project, the OCA would be happy to provide advice on how to seek access. Email enquiries[at]oca-uk.com and mark the email for my attention.

  • Yep thanks for the feedback. I have to say ideally I’d have liked to have filmed these (particularly the performances) in a more visually interesting location. But as ever its the content and whats being said that’s most important.
    Further to what Gareth said above I spoke to Pat Jones about gaining such access and not unexpectedly it can be quite problematic. So yes I’d certainly expect to be in it for the long term if that’s a project you really want to work on. But bear in mind that prison can be a sensitive subject and what you’re trying to show can easily be taken out of context.
    But its not impossible, Joshua Bilton has some pictures taken from inside various UK prisons.
    Jenn Ackerman’s ‘Trapped’ project depicting mental health in US prisons gained 2nd place in the Inge Morath award last year.
    Also Pete Brook has an entire blog devoted (though not exclusively) to prison photography thats also worth a look.

  • I found listening to Pat Jones’ and Akiel Chinelo’s videos very interesting. I agree with Pat that involvement in the creative arts can help to bolster or create a new, more positive self-image. This can lead to greater self-awareness and motivation to address other needs, such as a possible need to improve literacy or numeracy skills, something that can directly affect a person’s employability.
    It is inspiring that Akiel’s should find the solitary, restrictive nature of prison ‘freeing’, providing him with time to contemplate and reassess, but I wonder to what extent this is a common experience within prison and how it could be further encouraged?
    I think it says something about our society that Akiel should feel more free to assess his life whilst incarcerated, rather than when he was on the outside. I am sure many of us could benefit from eliminating distractions in our lives and setting aside time to look at our own behaviour, not only for our own sake, but also as a means of improving our society as a whole.

  • Very interesting and encouraging. A good glimpse into a private setting and Akiel is such a natural story teller, well done to him and good luck!

  • I agreed with what Pat said about art within Prisons, I am an ex-offender who ‘found’ art while in Prison. I am 43 and had no experience of Art since leaving school at 16. While in prison I completed NCFE level 1,2,3 Art and Design.I also entered an Art competition, and had two works exhibited in the ‘OUTSIDE IN’ for marginalised artist’s, which were shown in the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, one of which sold. Towards the end of my sentence I applied for a P.E.T grant to do an art course with the OCA.
    I also applied for a position advertised in the “Inside Times” for an ex-offender art worker with the Koestler Trust, which, happily, I was successful in getting and have worked there since March this year, starting six weeks after my release date. I currently work at the Koestler Trust (Arts for Offenders) and have daily contact within my role with prisoners arts, visual and non-visual. Art works I completed in prison were chosen to be exhibited at the Koestler exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London, starting 28th September to 14th November 2010. The diversity of art works from prisoners has amazed me, and continues to do so. As for art within prisons, on a personal level I found other prisoners the best support, emotionally and with regard to obtaining art materials (hand-me-downs). Many an art work has been done on a prison bedsheet. It is also an important point that each prison is different because of the attitude of the Govenor towards the arts/education within their prison. I echo the sentiment that prison gave me time to study that I would not have got in my everyday life. I am very grateful to the P.E.T for funding the course I am now on with the OCA and intend to go on to achieve BA Hons degree.

  • Another very uplifting and inspiring story, best of luck with your degree Daniel. Thank you also Gareth and Mark for the info and the links. Food for thought!

  • In response to mr Hoggs comment about Josh Bilton, the only reason he got access to those prisons is because he offered the prison services photographic work for free in order for them to use for publicity in brochures. The prisoners where merely used as a tool to barter by the Governors or media dep of the prisons. Highly unethical and obviously brings in to question exactly what lengths artists go to to gain access. I would also say that as a person he generally wouldn’t be the type I would trust to respect his subjects. Rather a wolf in sheeps clothing. Much better examples of this sort of work elsewhere which have more depth and less abstraction. He wouldn’t have even been able to put it together had it not been for his daddy helping him so much. So all you hopefuls think again. Gaining this sort of access requires underhand techniques.

    • To the last comment sorry Its in response to Mark not Mr Hogg. By the way best of luck to you Daniel and good luck going for the BA.

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