David Wilson is a former governor of HM Grendon, an experimental psychiatric prison in Buckinghamshire. Grendon is unique within the British penal system as it operates entirely as a psychodrama and therapeutic community. Prisoners engage in drama and creative workshops, group art, music and wellbeing courses.

“In general, the arts have a way of engaging offenders in ways that simply transcends other kind of approaches,” Wilson says.

Crucially, most inmates are illiterate. A report published in November 2015 revealed 46% of people entering the prison system have literacy skills of an 11-year-old child. Nonetheless, mathematics, English and IT skills are mandatory subjects on the teaching syllabus, and are required to be taught to all offenders. Arts based education such as painting; drawing, drama and music are not.

While HM Grendon does operate under Her Majesty’s Service, its classification as a psychiatric prison allows it to maintain autonomy.

Consequently, Grendon’s education department takes a holistic approach and marries conventional subjects with creative workshops and wellbeing courses. As rehabilitation and reform goes, the results are encouraging. They currently have an 8% reoffending rate, as opposed to the 24% in other prisons operating under Her Majesty’s service. Significantly, reoffending prisoners cost the taxpayers £13 billion pounds a year.

Former governor David Wilson is adamant that we need to ‘invest’ in these ‘different kind of approaches’.

The ethos at HM Grendon is simple: people who offend are typically those who have been excluded at school and are often illiterate and innumerate. If they failed at education in the community, you can’t really expect them to succeed in education whist in prison. Instead, it is important and vital for prisoners to engage in other ways of learning, ways that do not simply consist of literacy and numeracy courses. As Wilson suggests, “I have seen the arts used as a way of capturing their imagination, which then encourages them that they can achieve something more informally within the classroom setting.”

HM Grendon. Currently it houses 238 residents ©Wikipedia
HM Grendon. Currently it houses 238 residents ©Wikipedia

Wilson’s involvement with the British penal system dates back to 1984, when he worked as a junior governor at HMP Wormwood Srubs. Later, at 29, he became the youngest prison governor in the country. He then transferred to HM Grendon and ran the sex offenders’ treatment programme. It was the first time, he says, of working with ‘really violent prisoners’. He later resigned from the prison service after objecting to its regressive policy on reform.

“The prison space is a very carceral environment,” he tells me. “An environment in which it is very difficult to achieve anything other than to keep that individual prisoner locked up.”

Prisoner, Adam Mac, is serving life at high security HMP Wakefield. He is candid about how important the arts are to his mental health, and while a transfer to the therapeutic Grendon is desirable, as a cap A prisoner he is not eligible.

Nonetheless, Adam tries to indulge his creativity, painting prolifically, drawing, writing poetry and penning music lyrics. It is one of the ‘few ways’ he deals with his day-to-day existence inside Britain’s toughest and most dangerous prison.

“Prison is quite a harsh environment, there is an aversion to showing any kind of vulnerability. The arts is one way of showing that emotion without feeling vulnerable,” he tells me.

HMP Wakefield does not provide any arts based courses. The only creative class offered is guitar lessons once a month. However, there is a two-year waiting list. Admittedly, the prison does provide education, but it is solely limited to numeracy, literacy and IT classes.

“It is all very well wanting prisoners to read and write, but if half of them don’t get released because they have no outlet for their frustrations, well, this is the more pressing problem,” Adam says.

Currently, the government wants all prisoners to be at level two numeracy and literacy skills. Consequently, the arts has been disregarded, underfunded and is now practically obsolete in all prisons, excluding HM Grendon. Nevertheless, the arts are proven as an effective way to address disruptive prisoner behaviour, mental health problems, reform and rehabilitate. Why, is it not incorporated into the education syllabus?

Adam reveals a time (before Former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling) when the arts were, ‘very well catered for’. Creative learning, drama, mental wellbeing courses, we had ‘absolutely everything’ he says. Disruptive prisoners would attend an arts based course and would become less aggressive and more pleasant to be around. It was an area where prisoners could ‘express’ and ‘deal’ with their emotions.

Now, the funding has since dried up for creative education. In its place, Maths, English and IT classes. A holistic approach to prison education has deteriorated completely.

The adoption of a conservative educational syllabus is one of the many reasons why David Wilson gave up his post. ‘We should invest in them” he says referring to prisoners. Instead, the government has produced a system where the only thing it can achieve is keeping prisoners ‘locked up’.

Undeniably, this is the aim of all establishments of incarceration. However, the lack of guided reform isn’t working. Crucially, it is actually costing taxpayers money.

According to statistics from the Government’s Open justice, reoffending is up at 26%. In 2013, there were 514,000 adults and juvenile offenders. Approximately 136,000 of these offenders committed a proven re-offence within a year.

Wilson is adamant that we need to ‘engage offenders to learn the skills that allow prisoners to live a crime free life when released’. For 136,000 prisoners in 2013 their original punishment was pointless. Prison sentences need to both punish, but also reduce reoffending. Otherwise the cost to taxpayers is severe.

During his time as governor at HM Grendon, David Wilson introduced the ‘Gamelan Project’. A gamelan is a Japanese musical instrument that requires uniform ensemble synchronisation. Simply, the project requires prisoners to work together to achieve a task and only when working cohesively would the gamelan produce sound.

“They found a space in which they achieve, and then they can begin to identify other ways in which that achievement can be made real,” Wilson says of the project.

It proved a huge success. Regardless of the music, prisoners worked together to achieve a task. “They got used to going to education and succeeding, and they began to identify other ways in which that achievement can be made real,” says Wilson.

Inside Her Majesty’s high security prisons there is a complete ‘misunderstanding’ of what constitutes as the arts. Adam reveals how a prisoner, ‘a few years back now’, was on an art based course (“for similar reasons as to why I do it, to keep my depression away”). The prisoner was taken off the course and instead put to work sewing boxer shorts. He put in a request to be put back on the arts course as his mental health had significantly declined. He needed to be doing something creative. The governor rejected his request. ‘You are sewing boxer shorts that is creative!’ he wrote.

“And this,” Adam sighs, “is the universal attitude to the arts from general prison staff.”

Crucially, the current education system inside prisons is not working. The scarcity of creative learning is impinging the overall mental health and wellbeing of the prisoners inside. While, incarceration is a vital element to society, it doesn’t need to forgo creativity. However even more importantly, if the incarceration of prisoners is costing taxpayers more money than it should, and the current system inside it not helping to reform prisoners, then surely we need to amend the system? Starting with the most important, education.

“Creative education is the Cinderella of regimes in prisons,” says Wilson. “It has to fight every single day for its survival, and for what that survival looks like.”

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