Inspiring Desistance: What role for the arts?

A while back I posted about an article that was coming out which draws on a literature review and some recent evaluation evidence connecting arts programmes in prisons with the desistance literature. That paper has now been published (in Dutch) so I am allowed to share the English version with you. I’ll put it on the resources page (once I have figured out how), but in the meantime, here’s the conclusion:

“This limited and brief account of some of our findings raises a number of issues in the light of the three literatures reviewed above. As we noted at the outset, given the complexities and difficulties of the desistance process, particularly for those involved in persistent offending who tend to have a wide range of background needs and to face significant resettlement problems, it would be unrealistic to expect relatively brief involvement in an arts project in and of itself to somehow ‘produce’ desistance. Indeed, the much broader project of trying to develop a desistance-supporting form of sentence planning (or offender management) within (and beyond) prisons is highly challenging, although several jurisdictions are now confronting exactly this challenge. The nature of imprisonment itself seems to run against the grain of desistance by limiting agency and responsibility, delaying maturation, damaging social ties (and sometimes building anti-social ones) and cementing criminalised identities. Although this would tend to suggest that the first principle must be to use prisons as sparingly as possible, where imprisonment is necessary the challenge is to create whole regimes (not just formal offender management or resettlement processes) that foster hope, motivation and responsibility, that maintain and develop positive social ties (and that enhance offenders’ personal capacities to sustain positive roles and relationships, for example as parents), and that help to build new pro-social identities and social networks and contexts in which these new identities can be embedded, nurtured and sustained.

The literatures reviewed in the first section of this paper suggest several ways in which arts-based interventions might usefully play a key part in this process. As we have seen, such interventions can help to build better relationships between prisoners and between prisoners and staff, they can engage prisoners in educational and personal development processes, they can help prisoners to recognise and develop their existing strengths and their positive potential (rather than focusing on ‘deficits’), they can build self-esteem and self-confidence, they can both use and encourage peer support and team or group work, and they can encourage participation in other forms of learning.

Putting this in the terminology of desistance theory and research, arts-based interventions offer more than ‘just’ the development of the skills of offenders; they may enable them to at least begin to think differently about themselves, their families, their relationships with their peers, and their relationships to the prison regime and the opportunities it offers. More generally, they may help prisoners to ‘imagine’ different possible futures, different social networks, different identities and different lifestyles. In and of themselves, arts-based interventions are unlikely to deliver the concrete, realisable sentence and resettlement plans which many prisoners will need to tackle the full range of needs, issues and challenges that they face; but they may help to foster and to reinforce motivation for and commitment to the change processes that these formal interventions and processes exist to support. They may also play a part in bringing positive social contacts and networks into the prison-based process.

In the end, to measure arts-based interventions and accredited offending behaviour programmes by the same yardstick may be to miss the point. Arts-based activities and interventions are not intended or designed to directly address specific ‘criminogenic needs’. For prisoners, just as for everyone else, they are first and foremost an opportunity to engage with our own humanity and with our potential for growth and development. In this sense, access to artistic expression in prison is, in some senses, as much a human rights issue as a pragmatic or instrumental one about best how to engage people in changing their lives for the better.  Nonetheless, our analysis of the literature and of our own data suggests that, whilst arts-based interventions may be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for supporting desistance in and after prison, they can play a vital role in enabling prisoners to imagine and to embark on that journey.”

3 thoughts on “Inspiring Desistance: What role for the arts?”

  1. Heartening to read what many art therapists have long observed. I wonder again how it is that art therapy, despite being an AHP, remains so invisible & its professionals so unheard?
    (I worked in HMP Cookham Wood in the late ’70s & have run occasional prison sessions since. The hunger for art was intense & the ability of many to use it in the ways described here, very clear)
    Meanwhile art is being further reduced within (& in some areas completely omitted from) the school curriculum, with already very apparent consequences – despite teachers’ awareness of the increasing proportion of disturbed pupils in classes being unattended to, & the arts being an ancient form of self – expression & regulation & communication of deep, painful or confused inner experience into a ‘public’ arena for shared attention.
    Art as a therapy & means of personal development, agency, inquiry etc is virtually unavailable in large areas of Scotland, despite its potential role in Social Work etc.
    Need for some joined-up thinking here?


  2. I couldn’t agree more. It is tremendously confirming and exciting to read academic discourse that recognises and encapsulates the full, complex and powerful value of arts practice with offenders – instead of reducing it to flimsy statistics. Yippee! Now we need to mine this seam further…


    1. I thought you might approve! As you and I heard from Creative Scotland’s Joan Parr on Friday at the excellent launch event for the Koestler Trust’s exhibition at the Tramway Theatre in Glasgow (not to be missed if you are in town), the case has been made; the challenge now is to make arts mainstream in criminal justice.


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