From the Outside In: Narratives of Creative Arts Practitioners Working in the Criminal Justice System

There is a growing interest in the work of third sector organisations in the criminal justice system, and this increasingly extends to the little understood world of creative arts interventions with offender populations. Research to date has tended to focus on one of two goals; to evaluate the impact of the arts on psychological, behaviour and educational achievement (fitting neatly into the policy of the ‘evidence base’), or; to map the structural dynamics of the sector and its purported ‘drift’ towards coercive collusion with the state (evidencing the sector as fitting neatly into the policy). The problem with this kind of mapping is that, rather like a motorist giving directions to a cyclist, the details of the terrain may seem unimportant. What’s the difference between a 1:12 gradient compared to a 1:2 gradient? Tarmac or gravel surface? Wind direction? Behind the wheel of a car, taking in the (over)view, very little. But if you’re closer to the ground, in direct proximity to the terrain, those details are important, and they may have a good deal to tell us about the voluntary sector’s work, its strengths and weaknesses in this area. To continue this journey metaphor, while evaluation can tell us something about staging posts and outcomes, the traveller’s destination, it has less to say about the actual process of travelling. Evaluations and macro-sociology have their place, but if we want to see close up, we need a different method.

Life history research has played a key part in ‘getting under the skin’ of its participants, or in the case of creative arts practitioners, getting beyond the rhetoric of a successful funding bid. Interviewed in a formal setting, it may be that practitioners reproduce the expected discourse, tick the boxes, press the buzzwords in order to strengthen the case for funding that allows them to continue the work they do with prisoners, but how much that represents what they actually do in their work is another matter. Who are these creative practitioners who end up in prisons? And how do they get there in the first place?

Life histories offer a perfect way to elicit this kind of information. However, life history interviews may, perhaps, produce too much data, too many stories, and this leaves the researcher with the job of editor. What to leave in, what to take out? It becomes as much the researcher’s story as that of the participant. The bulk of opinion in a post-positivist world argues that this is inevitable, that co-creation of research should be treated as a strength. However, this position fails to acknowledge the history of prison research, which, to varying degrees has ignored, misrepresented and misconstrued the voices that come from inside prison. Interpretation becomes another manifestation of white, middle class privilege. We took a different approach and designed a creative data collection tool; an eight frame storyboard which invited the participants to tell the story of their journeys into the prison environment. In the process of crafting their stories the participants themselves were able to select what was important, decide which scenes to include and which to leave out, to essentially tell their story in their own way, with minimal input from the researcher.

Previous research has suggested ‘a distinctive “voluntary sector ethos” of compassion and rehabilitative approach’, and other research goes further, making the claim that the arts in criminal justice can serve to patronise prisoners and eventually ensnare them in the trap of ‘cultural goodwill’. The results of our research provide a challenge to some of these ideas. Such a view of the voluntary sector has its roots in notions of Victorian benevolence, whereby the elite and middle classes bestow charity upon the poor from the safe distance of privilege. However, the life stories of the creative practitioners suggested little of this type of ‘insider’ status. Just the opposite, in fact. Even those practitioners born into middle class families go on to describe how they reject or are rejected by those values. The overall sense is of people who feel very much on the outside of the political mainstream, of the status quo, of ableist narratives of wellbeing. They are outsiders working, and perhaps finding a sense of identification, with those on the inside. Less a case of benevolent compassion, and more one that is aligned with the other traditional of British charity, that of mutual aid.

This finding raises significant questions about the relationships that exist between practitioners and prisoners, and with further research may lead to a more comprehensive understanding of arts interventions and their efficacy in work with offenders. In turn, this work may contribute to the growing literature on peer mentoring. More challenging still, this blurring of the boundaries between practitioners and prisoners presents searching questions about the usefulness of mainstream interventions, the prisons that deliver them and the control structures within them.

‘This post is based on a recently published journal article: Simpson, E., Morgan, C. and Caulfield, L. S. (2019). From the outside in: Narratives of creative arts practitioners working in the criminal justice system. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 58, 384–403.

ICRD is based at @wlv_uni, we care about social justice, positive change, evidence-informed policy and practice, working in partnership to improve lives.