Creative in the clink

David Ramsbotham on why the arts are crucial to rehabilitating prisoners.

On 20 July 1910, the then home secretary, Winston Churchill, concluded a House of Commons debate on prison estimates with
the words:

The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country . . . a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment . . . an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man - these are the symbols which, in the treatment of crime and criminals, mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.

These beautifully crafted sentences were on my desk throughout the time that I was Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, because they seem to encapsulate a decent, humane and constructive criminal justice system. Would that they had also been on the desk of every home secretary, minister of justice and editor of those newspapers that specialise in sensationalising crime and criminals. I say this because in recent years, with the notable exceptions of Charles and Kenneth Clarke, these worthies have appeared to be more interested in worsening "the hard coinage of punishment" than in showing "a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate". The result has been a steady increase in both the size of the prison population and the percentage of those who reoffend, largely because so little is done to help them to live useful, law-abiding lives, one of the stated purposes of imprisonment.

I have long contended that, were the prison and probation services directed to make helping offenders to live useful and law-abiding lives their principal purpose, they would go about their tasks in a much more positive way than they do when concentrating on punishment. The punishment is the sentence of the court, not the way that it is administered. To know how to help, they would have to assess what it is that has prevented a useful and law-abiding lifestyle thus far and then do whatever they could to counter that, setting priorities both by the time available and the severity of the individual's problems. Assessment needs tools, of which one - the arts - has a uniquely important contribution to make to the process.

The prison population is often described as being a mixture of the bad, the mad and the sad. Of these, the incorrigibly bad are by far the smallest number, despite what some organs of the press would have us believe. The writer Arthur Koestler, a former prisoner, once said: "The main problem [of the prisoner] is apathy, depression and gradual dehumanisation. The spark dies." These two statements emphasise that, far from resettling people into society, prisons and probation staff have to think in terms of incentivising them so that they can settle, probably for the first time, because they were far from settled, mentally or physically, before they were punished. The question of how then arises.

Enter the arts. In the same way as Kenneth Clarke has recognised that leaving prisoners locked up in their cells all day with nothing to do is not going to bring about a revolution in rehabilitation, Koestler matched actions to words. Realising that self-respect and self-esteem were vital in reigniting the spark, he offered in 1962 to fund an award scheme that would apply to "prisoners with some creative potentialities". Since then, the trust that bears his name has mounted an annual exhibition of works of art, in over 50 categories, submitted by offenders, encouraged by a band of teachers throughout the country.

Every work of art is an achievement in which the creator can take personal satisfaction, and for which he or she can be praised - something that may never have happened to them in their lives. The resulting increase in self-esteem is often the vital trigger that encourages them to engage with education or training, which are essential if they are to live useful and law-abiding lives on release.

No other kind of activity, in my experience, transforms offenders more than involvement with the arts, whether it be painting, or writing, or needlework, or whatever. That is why, if rehabilitation is the aim, it is essential that the arts be compulsory ingredients of every prison project and of the programme provided in every probation area. They are a supreme spend-to-save measure, because even though they are not expensive to provide, the contribution they can make to the prevention of reoffending could save not only millions of pounds, but the lives of countless people. l

Lord Ramsbotham was HM chief inspector of prisons from 1995 to 2001