The Arts In Criminal Justice

I’ve been working in prisons since 2013, teaching Creative Writing, listening, watching and slowly coming to understand how the behemoth that is our criminal justice system works (and fails to work). It’s fascinating and challenging and rewarding employment.

I teach classes to two categories of prisoner – long- and short-term – and the needs of each could not be more different. When I first started working, I was told that Creative Writing was ‘not therapy’ and that what I was teaching was ‘a discipline’, but of course there’s no getting away from the fact that people who have experienced (and have yet to process) trauma need to speak of it, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not. And Creative Writing provides the ideal opportunity to explore personal stories.

I have a lot to say about this subject (and a lot more thinking to do), not least because I’m aware that the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) could achieve so much more with the arts in prison. There is always the ‘not enough funding’ response, but the truth is our culture still doesn’t recognise the value (psychospiritual, deep time) of art, which means the provision of the arts in prison (and outside, for ex-offenders) remains limited.

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I’m slowly gathering stories from my time working at HMP Dumfries and HMP Shotts. I’m very clear that I won’t publish anything that has been shared with me in confidence by students and colleagues. There will be no attention-grabbing accounts of what goes on inside (as if I really have a clue anyway). Instead, I’m weaving stories from stories, creating fiction based on interpretation and observation, and I’m using them to reflect on the broader issue of cultural neuroses in relation to crime and punishment in 21st century Scotland. What are we trying to achieve with prisons and prisoners? What is the real function of punishment? Why do we continue to fail the prisoners of the so-called ‘churn’, those on an endless cycle of imprisonment and release?

Apart from fictional explorations, I’m also interested in undertaking research in this field. I don’t have a doctorate in Criminology, so it makes it much more difficult to bid for research posts, but if you’re reading this and know of research possibilities in the arts and criminal justice, please do let me know. I’d very much like to take part in a comparative study, for example, of the rehabilitative impact of the arts in the Scandinavian and Scottish prison services.

In the mean time, here’s a piece I wrote for JPER (Journal of Prison Education and Reentry): Teaching Compassion in Prison: A Key to Learning

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