By Isabel Beaumont, Amelia Hoy and Sophie Pavitt
Being restricted to a cell, prisoners often experience a lack of creative freedom, preventing them from truly expressing their individuality. Some prisons have adopted an approach which encourages those incarcerated to participate in art workshops/courses. Many of these enable men/women in prison to express themselves through creative approaches like drawing, painting or even sculpture work.
As placement students taking on the role of Research Assistants in the ‘Doing Porridge’ project, exploring women’s experiences of food in prison, we had the opportunity to attend the ‘Our Time’ exhibition at HMP Send, the women’s prison near Woking.
This annual event started in 2017, the brainchild of two prisoners taking part in the weekly art workshops delivered since 2008 in HMP Send by Watts Gallery Trust and funded by the Michael Varah Memorial Fund (MVMF). It is because of the partnership between these two organisations that the ‘Art for All Community Learning programme’ is provided with the necessary equipment to facilitate the sessions, including an art tutor who runs the weekly workshops. ‘Our Time’ is the first UK in-prison exhibition planned by the prisoners themselves: they curate and display the work they have created during their time on the programme and the MVMF works alongside them only to help facilitate their efforts.
During our journey to the prison, we each discussed our expectations for the day, all sharing the assumption that the prison environment would be ‘old’ and clinical. A lot of our ideas were shaped by our exposure to the media and how prisons can be portrayed in fictional television shows. We were all admittedly surprised to receive such a warm welcome from the prison staff, observing the modern design of the prison, i.e., brightly coloured walls in the Visits Hall as well as the outdoor spaces, like the garden areas.
Immediately, we all commented on the familiarity of the environment as it emulated other institutions, such as hospitals and schools. Initially, we thought that we would feel intimidated by the prison staff; however, upon arriving, we were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome from staff members and the friendly charisma they obtained whilst upholding a tremendous level of professionalism. It was interesting to see this overlap when also witnessing the same staff members interact with women in prison. On both accounts, the staff members had a great rapport with the artists as well as the guests at the exhibition.
During the exhibition, we found that many of the women were willing to discuss some of their personal motivations for their artwork. Some simply used art to create an ideal, calming environment, whilst others used it to reminisce on memories prior to their incarceration. Amelia commented on how the captions displayed alongside the artwork were incredibly emotional as many mentioned feelings of isolation and missing their families.
After being so moved by the work of these women, we had the opportunity to purchase the art as well as postcards, Christmas cards and calendars featuring the artwork. We also learnt that 70% of profits went directly to the artists, with 20% going to Victim Support Surrey and the remaining 10% to the Michael Varah Memorial Fund to support the programme for future years.
While talking to the artists, they shared that they were very fond of their art tutor. They especially valued her help and enthusiasm for the programme, also commenting on how they felt respected and recognised. As well as leaving the programme with professional art experience, they will also take confidence from developing social skills which will be useful for when they leave the prison at the end of their sentence. During lockdown, the ‘Our Time’ exhibition gave the women something to focus on and work towards, allowing them to feel a sense of purpose at such an ‘isolating’ time. Some of the members asserted that prior to incarceration, art was not something they were interested in. However, since being in prison and participating in these workshops, many expressed that participating in art enabled them to improve their mental and emotional well-being.
A former member of the programme has made a career in the commercial art sector since finishing her sentence, demonstrating the rehabilitative importance of the scheme. This is something that some of the current artists in the programme wish also to pursue.
The overall experience of the day contradicted our expectations. Being able to talk to the women directly was extremely eye-opening, discussing both their memories from before their sentence as well as personal details which inspired their art. We really valued the interactions which we were able to have with the artists and were especially grateful for their willingness to be so candid about their personal lives. Judging by the success of this exhibition, we believe that art programmes similar to ‘Art for All’ should be common practice amongst other prisons due to the number of benefits which we have discussed. Our time at HMP Send was memorable and informative, and we look forward to returning in the near future.