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The art of prison: Thinking inside the box - The Open College of the Arts
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The art of prison: Thinking inside the box

‘A true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention,’ (Plato, The Republic, Book II, 369c).

Prison is concrete and steel proof that the more you confine a person, the more creative they become. Nowhere are the creative arts more vibrant and prolific than locked up inside. As the OCA embarks on its Offender Learning Project this series of posts explores the art of prison.

It’s a sweltering midsummer Thursday afternoon and I’m standing outside a cell, in the segregation unit of a high security prison, listening to the prisoner locked inside recite his poetry to me through the steel door. As well as his desperate recitals from behind the door, he’s covered every square inch of his cell walls in pencil drawn murals. Having to live and think inside that box is doing more to inspire creativity than could all the blue skies he has not experienced for years and will not experience again for many years to come.

I’ve spent years as a writer in residence in all kinds of prisons around the estate and what strikes me time and time again is the creativity that fills every one of them. It takes a while to feel it, because at first  the overriding feeling you get inside is claustrophobia. But once you start to feel creativity in prison, you feel it everywhere. It’s in the fabric of the place, the cinematic architecture of confinement and the construction of another reality; unfamiliar but somehow recognisable. But mostly it’s in the people who live and work inside. Because when you lock up hundreds of people in this suffocating environment, take everything away from them and control their every move, extraordinary things start to happen.

One of my first ever projects in prison was to put on a play. In my naiveté I believed the 25 prisoners who signed up to take part were all motivated by a desire to express themselves creatively. I soon realised the primary motivation was boredom, closely followed by the prospect of refreshments, with the odd one or two motivated by more sinister prospects involving contraband.  I now know this is the norm in prisons and the trick is to know how to channel these motivators. Despite what the newspapers say, prison cells are not filled with the best in home entertainment and so even the most unlikely characters can start to see the appeal of more creative distractions or pursuits. The desire or need to gain from or manipulate a situation is also very human and every prison has a black museum which will illustrate the ingenuity possible when you’re locked up and you need a weapon, drugs or alcohol. I’m not condoning it but I can’t deny some of the creations and creative methods of making, obtaining and hiding items are ingenious. The thing is, whatever the motivator, creativity always wins.

Because as well as boredom, necessity and greed inspiring creativity, there is an instinct for the arts in us all. This is the most powerful motivator for creativity in prison. Time and time again the environment and the experience of prison taps into some instinctive need for a person to create something new and imaginative in whatever artistic medium suits. I can draw no other conclusion than the instinct for art is within us all but there is something about prison that brings it to the surface. Sometimes it takes years, often it comes with some urgency. One thing is for sure, it is more usual for someone to discover the creative arts in prison than for them to come to prison an artist, a musician or a writer.

So the prisoners did indeed seize upon creative opportunities for negative gain a number of times as we worked on that first play together. But it was almost as if this were a formality to get through. Once the habitual response to take advantage of the circumstances finally passed (it took a while) the positive effects of creating something artistic in terms of writing, performance, music and art in a group of likeminded people were breathtaking. These positive effects spread throughout the whole prison and touched everyone inside, including staff, and spread outside to the families and friends of the prisoners involved. The ultimate effect of creating this piece of art was a noticeable shift in the culture of the establishment from troubled and fractious to upbeat and cohesive.

The project gave me a sharp but powerful grounding in facilitating the arts in prison and making positive use of the creativity that restriction and confinement inspires.

Written by creative writing tutor, Gerry Ryan, who is joint Offender Learning Project Lead with creative arts tutor, Rachel Forster.

Artwork by Erika, you can read her story here https://www.prisonerseducation.org.uk/stories/i-drew-my-way-out-of-prison-erikas-story

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Posted by author: Gerry Ryan
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3 thoughts on “The art of prison: Thinking inside the box

  • I love your repeated use of ‘time and time again’ in this context. In HMP Grendon, a therapeutic prison, they use drama and art therapy to help the offenders come to terms with what they have done. The ‘actors’ swap roles within the same play – sometimes as the perpetrator, sometimes as the victim as when Edmund Clark did his artist in residence there, and photographed the ‘actors’ wearing masks as they performed The Oresteia by Aeschylus. Clark’s book ‘In place of hate’ is a rich seam of inspiration for anyone interested in psychodrama as a therapeutic practice.

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