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

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis