Tough love

Prison arts programmes are no soft option. They cut crime and protect victims, writes Angela Neustat

As the curtain goes down on the London Shakespeare Workshop's production Blacking Iago, Darren Raymond delights in the audience's enthusiastic applause. After a decade spent on the streets with gun gangs, using and dealing drugs, and "up to a lot of bad stuff", he was introduced to acting while serving time in Brixton prison. If that had not happened, he says, he would probably be dead, or inside for a long stretch. Now he is an up-and-coming performer, currently filming his own script Shooting the Score and preparing to go on tour in February with another LSW show, Black Atlas.

The change in Raymond's fortunes is, in part, thanks to Bruce Wall, LSW's director, who describes himself as a "theatrical missionary". He goes into prisons and introduces inmates - many virtually illiterate - to Shakespeare, guiding them to an understanding of how his work has resonance in their own lives. Prisoners deconstruct the plays, reshape them in their own words and write lines in iambic pentameter. The best may be offered the chance to perform with LSW when they are released. Raymond now says: "Succeeding as an actor is my protection against going back to my old life."

Despite plenty of anecdotal evidence that arts projects can help prevent reoffending, the government has been reluctant to put money into investigating their long-term benefits. The response to any rise in violent youth crime has been to call for tougher sentences and more punitive regimes. But that is changing.

Next year, the Youth Justice Board and Arts Council England will spend £2m on replicating successful local arts rehabilitation programmes across the country. They argue forcefully that the arts are not a "soft option", but an integral component in the rehabilitation of troubled youngsters. "In the present climate of failure of a cri m inal justice system for the young, it is important that we try a new way," says Nikki Crane, the Arts Council's head of social inclusion. "To ach ieve in the arts requires a great deal of application and rigour, and for those who find something valuable in them and want to continue, it may make them determined to change their lives."

Around the country, highly credible local arts programmes are already transforming the lives of young offenders and those around them. Dance United's Academy in Bradford is a dance-led education programme for juvenile offenders based in Yorkshire. Darryl Coates, 18, and Marc Lacey, 17, have no doubt that the academy has helped them. Coates's initial reaction was that "dancing was gay; not for me". Yet he went on to star in a stunning contemporary performance, Men At War. "I liked being physical and increasing my fitness, and I got a buzz performing," he says. Lacey "gained confidence and the ability to take criticism and concentrate on what people are saying". Both are going on with dance taking a performing arts First Diploma course at Bradford College.

Many of the arts figureheads who have dedicated themselves to working with young people are equally convinced about the effectiveness of such projects. Roger Graef, producer of the Bafta-winning documentary Feltham Sings, has focused much of his work around young offenders. He says arts projects work because they offer an opportunity for young people to have their feelings validated. "These are young people who have a great deal of feeling, but this is not addressed by the justice system," he says. "Arts provide a way to reach that part of them conventional justice doesn't understand. It is often the first time these people have expressed something other than the impulsive, primitive and fearful. If we can build on their self-esteem, there's just a chance they will emerge from prison wanting to be part of society instead of against it."

Smart Justice for Young People is a new organisation campaigning for better alternatives to prison and promoting community-based rehabilitative arts programmes. The project's director, Lucie Russell, believes that the arts can engage young people who feel alienated from traditional education. "They provide more accessible skills, and allow young people to find their voice. This is not about being indulgent to young offenders. It's a practical attempt to protect victims."

Reformed offenders

Johnny Vaughan spent time in prison in the late 1980s after unsuccessfully trying to sell cocaine to detectives at a hotel close to the M1 motorway. He served two years of a four-year prison sentence. Vaughan subsequently got his big break presenting Moviewatch and now has a breakfast show on Capital Radio and a weekly column in the Sun.

Jimmy Boyle is now a successful Scottish sculptor, but he discovered his artistic talent while serving a life sentence for murder. His first novel, Hero of the Underworld, has since been turned into a film.

Stephen Fry admits that he started getting into trouble when he became aware of his sexuality. He was expelled from three schools, and attempted suicide at 16. At 17, he was found guilty of credit card fraud and spent three months in prison. Fry is currently among the top ten nominees for the BBC Culture Show's "Living Icons" award.

Ashley Walters (pictured, right) got an 18-month sentence in a young offender institution for possession of an illegal gun in 2001. He said he was glad, as it gave him time to reinvent himself. It also proved a useful experience for Bullet Boy, in which he played a young man trying to rebuild his life after a spell behind bars.