Art by offenders | The Open College of the Arts
Welcome school and college leavers of 2020! Browse the arts courses you can study with OCA, and our webinars about studying with us.
Explore #WeAreOCA
Skip Navigation

Art by offenders

Art in prisons has a long and well-established tradition. It provides a way for inmates to express themselves, produce something of meaning or to simply help pass the long hours locked in a cell. As a open learning experience OCA is well placed to support students in prisons and over the last few years I have enjoyed working with a number of budding illustrators currently serving custodial sentences.

The Visit - HMP Shepton Mallet, Bronze Award 2011, Oil or Acrylic
The Visit - HMP Shepton Mallet, Bronze Award 2011, Oil or Acrylic

A highlight of the prison art calendar is the annual Koestler Awards, which aims to reward ‘creative work in the fields of literature, the arts or sciences by those physically confined’. The Awards are part of the Koestler Trust, which was established by Hungarian author and essayist Arthur Koestler in 1962. Koestler was a vehement campaigner against the death penalty in the UK in the 1950 & 60s and after it was abolished in 1965 he turned his attention to supporting ‘an imaginative and exciting way to stimulate as far as possible and in many cases as possible the mind and spirit of the prisoner‘.
The Trust has continued with that mission and this year sees the 50 th Annual UK exhibition, Art by Offenders: secure patients and detainees. Any prisoner is fee to submit their work and the exhibition has been curated by a group of volunteers who are all members of the Magistrates Association.
Life on The Wing on The Inside - HMP Wandsworth, Highly Commended Award 2011, Oil or Acrylic
Life on The Wing on The Inside - HMP Wandsworth, Highly Commended Award 2011, Oil or Acrylic

The exhibition runs from 22 September – 20 November 2011, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. I know that several of my students have submitted work for consideration, so I’m looking forward to seeing if they were selected for the exhibition.


Posted by author: Christian Lloyd
Share this post:

11 thoughts on “Art by offenders

  • I’d never heard of the Koestler Awards so thanks for the tip off – I want to study art therapy and am really keen to learn more about how being creative and expressive can bring out the best in people. It’s a great way for prisoners to feel like they’re still alive and connected with the outside world – and hopefully painting works therapeutically to show they can be part of something wonderful and important if they try. Can’t wait to see this exhibition.

    • Hi there Fran, I just noticed your message above mine. I am just about to embark on my career change into art therapy and am just wondering how best to go about it. Have you started to study for it yet?

      • Hi Christian. No, I haven’t yet started. You need a degree in a visual art or psychology, or alternatively they’ll accept students who have a degree in a health care subject (like Mental Health Nursing for example). I am hoping to get my degree through Open College of Arts in Creative Arts over the course of the next 3 years. There are only about 7 or 8 institutions that provide the Art Therapy programme and they’re dotted about all over the place – my nearest is Newport, Wales (I live in Bristol), but I am considering trying out Sheffield. Even the full time course (2 years) is only one day a week and then a weekend every month or something similar, so it’s certainly do-able to travel if you need to. The part time course is over 3 years. Check out the British Association of Art Therapists website – it’s pretty informative.
        I hope I’ve been useful! Fran

      • Hi Lucy, I have an artist friend who completed her art therapy training with high marks. Before choosing this degree she was a painter and part time art teacher. She hasn’t been able to find a job in this field for well over 3 years. She got into debt to pay for her training and had to give up her studio (hasn’t painted for a long time and misses it). There are many people with experience in these jobs, loads of new therapists looking for work, and with cut backs added in the mix very few jobs. It is worth checking all this carefully before you jump in! all the best anyway…

  • I can’t wait to go to this exhibition. Ever since I was lucky enough to go the Musee de L’Art Brut is Switzerland I have been fascinated by this genre of artwork. All the best with the exhibition, thanks for the blog post.

  • Hi everyone, I have just completed the drawing 1 course with the OCA,I work for the Koestler Trust and have sculptures in the Exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall. I joined the Koestler after leaving prison nearly two years ago and have many tasks from logging the artwork in to dealing with communications from artist’s-prisoners. I give talks to sponsors which include Bloomberg and the CO-OP about art in Prison and my experiences as well as my own art and the path it is taking. Feel free to ask me any questions regarding these subjects.

  • There is an exhibition at World Museum Liverpool
    SAFETY NET OF SKY
    The Koestler Exhibition for the North West
    30 March – 27 May
    Should be interesting.

  • Thank you for providing the link to the exhibition in Liverpool. I am interested in learning more about the Koestler awards. I have a a graduate degree in Law and have taught courses in Crime and Sentencing in England, Canada and New Zealand. I have an Art Chat Word Press site charaleeg and would be interested in receiving submissions from artists in the Art by Offenders group.

  • Hi I have just started teaching art to prisoners, and I am amazed how much they get out of the session, the Koestler Awards are a reality check for them, and something to aim for. I am hoping to learn more and more about how they work etc… at the end of the day I am there to teach and not to Judge.. Some are exteremly talented, and only find out they have a skill by attending Art lessons in prison, after never trying Art ever before. It is quite inspirational and very rewarding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to blog listings