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Working with prisoners

One of the reasons I like working for the OCA is that it gives the widest possible range of people the chance to make serious art and gain a degree if they so wish. Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the work of students serving in Category A prisons.

The images here are from a level one student called Ian who is serving a long term prison sentence and is hoping to gain a degree with us over the next few years. Ian enjoys working in a controlled and precise way, something he has in common with most prisoners I work with. When we began working with prisoners we were given advice from an experienced prison arts worker. He told us that in prison art has a currency in terms of status, or even a direct bartering value. To have a skill in accurate representational drawing can raise your status within a prison in contrast to the more violent route, and being able to draw people’s wives or children can earn respect and cigarettes. Looked at from another perspective, this makes experimentation in one’s art work a lot riskier than for a student on the outside.
The power of art in this context interests me. We are now a very visually aware society but Fine Art does not engage in the rough and tumble of everyday society as it did when the public eagerly awaited the latest penny etching of the new masterpiece by some Academician or other. Although the tabloids do their best to stir up Turner Prize controversy, on the whole people aren’t fainting in art galleries anymore. In prison though, art is in the thick of it and has the power to transform everyday life.
As a tutor, my goal is to stand alongside and enable the student as far as I can to make the art work they want to make, whilst also encouraging them to really reflect on the nature of that ‘want’ and the journey they are on so that the process is a reflective and creative one. The challenge for me as a tutor is to work out what the motivations are for artists in high security prisons.
Some prisons have a rule that prisoners are not allowed to draw ‘any part of themselves’ and there are strict rules which forbid drawing almost everything that the men see around them; the building, the staff or the other inmates. In this way they are stopped from being directly inspired to work from something they have seen in their lives as so many of my students are.
Although this is by necessity a generalisation, all the prisoners I have worked with have not had any art education before being introduced to art in prison. They have not been into a gallery and they tend not to know anything about art or artists. This means that their motivation to do art is not based on any knowledge of fine art or any awareness of art history. They tend to have very limited access to imagery and of course are not allowed access to the internet.
These two things combined mean that they are making their work in a near vacuum, and yet those of them who manage to get going with the course become some of my most dedicated students. For most students, the learning log is a vital tool for me to learn about my students and tailor my responses to the work to be more helpful. My prisoner students tend to find it almost impossible to keep a useful log as they are unused to doing something like that with language and with writing. Occasionally I get a glimpse of something such as a comment like ‘it’s like 5 alive!!!’ (to describe the mood created by working hard at a successful drawing and being ‘in the zone’) but the logs tend to be careful and practical with very little insight into motivation.
To get back to Ian; he wrote to say that he is passionate about drawing animals. It will be a long time before he sees an animal bigger than a fly I imagine, but that passion brings me to the one element of the mix that he still has full ownership of – his own internal creative life. Ian manages to find these images of animals, sometimes disastrously twee in their first incarnation (their work’s relationship to photography is complex), and rework them with the force of his own personality and creativity into the sharp, dark little drawings you see here.
The prisoners’ resourcefulness (one student, finding himself without charcoal, made a drawing with a burnt match), and their dedication is sometimes striking. If Ian were able to I am sure he would want to speak about the difference art has made in his life. Category A prison is an extreme example, but I have students on low incomes, in shared houses, working on kitchen tables, with chronic ill health or juggling work and childcare alongside studenthood. I am continually impressed by the dedication of my students and it is a privilege to be involved with them all.

Posted by author: Emma Drye
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21 thoughts on “Working with prisoners

  • “..To have a skill in accurate representational drawing can raise your status within a prison..” I was totally unaware of this!
    A really interesting post, and strikingly beautiful detailed sketches.
    Emma, all the best to you and your students!

  • A fascinating insight – it must be very difficult to do some of the courses whilst in prison – especially as the modules usually ask you to draw from life and they have restrictions on this. Ian’s drawings are lovely – I am sure he is in great demand by other prisoners – like Dewald, I was unaware of the status an artist has inside.
    As Emma says – there are quite a few OCA students who face real challenges whilst doing their modules – but their love of their subject and determination obviously keep them going.

  • Thanks, Emma; you shine a light on an aspect of OCA’s work that is unknown to most, and it provides an inspirational perspective for all of us.

  • I’ll add my comments of appreciation to others’. Thanks for this post and I especially found the details about ‘currency’ fascinating. This reminds me of those films where soldiers in wars away from home turn to art for comfort and who are able to draw their comrades for them to send back to loved ones. Even though I have seen this kind of thing depicted in old movies, I had never quite understood how this is a kind of currency.

  • I agree with all written before. The insight into prisoner students working in ‘a vacuum’ without prior art knowledge and education is extremely thought provoking. I had no idea OCA was involved with prison education.

  • Loved this article very informative and moving. Ian’s work is wonderfully delicate and captures not only the details of the animals but their personality shines through…. marvellous drawings. Must be abummer not being able to read these replies – are you able to pass our responses to his work on Emma?

  • Great drawings – very intense and alive, and a really interesting insight into the challenges faced by prisoner students. Thank you Emma.
    I can see why technical proficiency in drawing could give status in prison. I think it gives status quite often in the wider world also. It is easy for people to see and appreciate drafting skills and there is still a commercial market for technically strong representational painting. It is only relatively recently that this has stopped being a core element of high art, and the lack of obvious skill in much contemporary art makes it challenging for many.
    I saw the Leonardo exhibition a month or so ago. One of the things that sruck me was that people have been queueing to see his work since it was conceived. I am sure that a great deal of this was down to his phenomenal technical and artistic proficieny. At that time of course beautiful pictures, especialy of religious of mythological subjects, were held to show us our ideal and better selves and I am sure this added to the pictures’ status.
    It all makes me wonder though (not for the first time) why we as human beings are so drawn to art. What makes it so important to us, and so pleasurable/stimulating/enriching? I find it all rather mysterious.

    • Eileen, what I can’t understand is how some people can live without any appreciation of anything beautiful. I know not everyone can understand, and not everyone appreciate all art, but to me personally it’s very sad to meet someone, often my teenage students (or grownups even), where there is absolutely no appreciation of the smallest picture, music or photo…

  • I have worked with offenders in the past, both outside and inside prison, and so many of them were good at drawing and also wrote poetry. I always wondered why this hadn’t been nurtured at school. Ian’s drawings are so detailed and finely crafted and I wish him every success.

  • Hi Emma, great insight into a subject that has been very much in my thoughts recently. You have answered a few questions for me, so thanks and see you soon.

  • Emma’s observations chime with my experience of running a full time art workshop in a maximum security prison for nearly nine years. It was the subject of an MA research programme I did through the RCA the essence of which is published as a chapter in “Art Therapy with Offenders” edited by Marianne Liebmann.

  • Really interesting Emma, thanks. Did anyone get round to seeing the Art by Offenders exhibition at the Southbank Centre recently? Article here from a few months ago: (I really wanted to go but couldn’t make it and would like to know anyone’s thoughts if they did go.)
    Colin, I met Marianne Liebmann a few years ago on an introductory course to Art Therapy in Bristol – she, and the course, really inspired me to want to study the subject, and therefore go back to my art studies. I’ll have to look for the book you mention – thanks for the tip.

  • Very interesting report by Emma and responses which I agree with. I love Ian’s animal sketches. I thought it was difficult enough to do drawing with the benefit of the web and visits but Ian has a much more of a challenge. Hopefully there is a useful library he can use. Ian obviously has real talent and I wish hime well and hope he gets a great deal out of his art.

  • Thank you Emma for telling us about your work with disadvantaged students. The way you tell it and the response of all the students above, must surely make you realise what a special job you have.

  • I am at present in correspondence with a prisoner in the USA and he is doing drawings similar to Ian’s for me. I’m going to use them to illustrate a childrens’story.I am paying him to do this. Might this be possible,to match artists in prison with those doing childrens’ writing level 2?
    I also write to a death row prisoner through an organization called Good for writing skills.

  • I was the Education Manager at HMP Pentonville before I retired. Art was seen as a recreational rather than an essential subject. I fought for Art to remain part of the curriculum and how right I was. Not only is Art, “food for the mind” and as essential as food for the body, but it is also a tool for people who may not have the skills to express themselves in other ways. It is a confidence builder when confidence is low. It is also a non-threatening way to Education. And so, a plea to all those with authority, be it the Government, or the Providers – please, please, please do not touch Art in prisons, let it be and let it thrive.

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