Number 24 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' highlights how art can help offenders sculpt a new future…

According to the Prison Reform Trust, over a quarter of women and 16% of men said they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before they were imprisoned.

Yet an investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman found that one in five people with a diagnosed mental health problem received no care from a mental health professional in prison.

In 2009, Too Little, Too Late: An Independent Review of Unmet Mental Health Need in Prison revealed that many people who should have been diverted into mental health or social care were instead entering prisons. The report also found that prisons were unable to provide the specialist care needed by people with mental health problems and that the same people were being discharged back into the community with no support.

I would be lost without art, back in the system…

Participant (from the ‘Re-imagining futures’ report by the Arts Alliance)

Art and creative activities can provide offenders with an opportunity to reflect, an outlet to express difficult feelings and experiences, and offer much-needed support to boost mental health and wellbeing.

Fortunately, the arts already have a foothold within the Criminal Justice System, through education classes and charities like ours. At Paintings in Hospitals, we’ve worked with several prisons over many years to provide our art services to offenders. We currently work with HMP Winchester and HMP Pentonville. We also have several artworks in our collection by offenders, which we acquired through the Koestler Awards.

The Koestler Trust is one of the most well-known prison arts charities. They encourage offenders to change their lives through taking part in the arts and challenge negative preconceptions of what ex-offenders are capable of. The Koestler Awards are open to original artworks by anyone currently in prison, young offender institution, secure training centre, secure children’s home, immigration removal centre, or high or medium security psychiatric hospital.

There is strong evidence to show that the arts are greatly beneficial in the Criminal Justice System. The National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance’s Re-Imagining Futures report stated that arts projects enable offenders ‘to redefine themselves, engage with productive activities and improve their ability to co-operate with others’.

Data submitted to the Ministry of Justice by Prisoners’ Education Trust showed that it can reduce reoffending by over a quarter compared to a matched control group. Grants made for arts materials alone resulted in reducing the reoffending rate from 35% to 30%.

Other participatory arts programmes were found to provide a range of benefits from improved self-confidence, better interpersonal skills, enhanced wellbeing and improved mental health.

Engaging in the arts is not just a nice thing for offenders. It allows them to learn a new skill, opening the door to further education. Improved communication skills make people more employable, and group work can soften the transition back into the community. Above all art offers us the tools to deeply explore our own identity. And, perhaps, to sculpt one in a new image.

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