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The UK’s prisons have been in the news recently, since David Cameron proposed new reforms. Official reports have noted overcrowding, understaffing, high levels of violence and suicide, and a drop in “purposeful activities”, such as learning and skills development for prisoners. Previous Minister of Justice (MoJ) Chris Grayling’s general policy approach, which appeared inclined towards punishment rather than rehabilitation, did little to help.


But the situation is slowly changing. At the end of 2014, judges quashed the infamous “ban on books” and, with some urgency, the new MoJ Michael Gove unveiled plans for building new prisons, with increased education provision within them.


However, there is still a stark contrast with Scotland’s “more holistic approach to criminals”. This is seen in a number of ways. Minor offenders are more likely to do community service than be locked up, and the probation service is managed by social workers. Most fundamentally, there is a greater focus in Scotland on interventions and developmental activities, designed to help rehabilitate offenders and help them to ‘desist’ from crime in the future (“punishment is pointless if prisoners go on to offend again”). In contrast to England, Scotland’s different approach appears to be working, as The Economist has noted approvingly.



Cultural interventions

Clearly, rehabilitation requires addressing issues such as addiction, health, and low literacy. But it is increasingly clear that arts and creative activities also have a role to play. Already, a number of artists work in this sphere, and a significant body of evidence highlights the value of prison-based arts activities. For instance, a 2005 literature review of the field found that:


“the arts are associated with positive criminal justice outcomes and play an important part in changing individual, institutional and social circumstances which sponsor criminal behaviour.”


A 2011 study also found that prison-based arts projects created a financial return for every £ spent – which is not surprising when the costs of incarceration alone, not to mention the costs of police and court time, are so high (c. £40,000 per person per year).



Creative Scotland’s Arts and Criminal Justice programme

Given such evidence, in 2012 Creative Scotland funded a three-year Arts and Criminal Justice Programme. The aim was not necessarily to increase the amount of arts and creative work per se, or to study the impact of the work on offenders (as there is already plenty of literature on the subject). Rather, the key aim of the programme was to test out ways that would embed arts and creative activities more firmly within the Scottish justice sector, rather than always relying on ad hoc initiatives.


For the criminal justice strand, the key structural innovation of the programme was to deliver the five funded prison projects as partnerships between cultural organisations and the prison Learning Centres, as these are independent but statutory services delivered in every prison. For the projects in the community justice strand, practice is less well developed and the settings also much more diverse (e.g. the funded projects included those with ex-offenders but also those at risk of school exclusion and in communities affected by crime). The projects in this strand were thus intentionally more exploratory than in the prison context.


The results of our three-year evaluation show a subtle and nuanced picture. In the criminal justice strand, the programme has continued the positive trend regarding the arts and creative activities within prisons. SPS recently completed a full Arts Review, Creative Scotland has funded Working in Scottish Prisons: An Artist’s Guide, and individual prisons have invested more in arts and creative facilities. Placing the projects within the Learning Centres has also had several strongly positive outcomes in terms of building up and retaining skills and expertise among core staff, in drawing prisoners into their core learning offer, and improving their relationships with both prisoners and SPS officers.


However, the evaluation also points to challenges to further integration: core prison structures and routines are likely to continue disrupting project delivery, as are high officer turnover, a lack of relevant training, and continued limited integration with other delivery areas.


The results of the community justice strand are less definitive. Most projects encountered difficulties in their delivery in some way. This included recruiting participants – from what are typically vulnerable and guarded groups – finding the right partners within the community justice sector, convincing partners of the value of their activities, and having to fit activities in and around existing sector systems. This seems indicative of a community justice sector that is of a size, diversity and fragmentation that currently makes it difficult to develop a more strategic approach to providing support. Alternate ways forward may lie in a tighter focus of arts interventions on the link between criminal and community justice (‘through the gate’ support). In this, Community Payback Orders (CPOs) and the establishment of a new sector umbrella body, Community Justice Scotland, may enable a more strategic approach to funding community justice arts activities.


Despite continuing challenges, it is an exciting time for arts in the justice sector in Scotland. And it is time for the English system to take note.


Our evaluation is available for download below.



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Further reading



We would love to hear views on this research. Get in touch below.

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By BOP Consulting

Bethany Lewis

Senior Consultant

Bethany is an experienced consultant, who has worked for a range of national and international clients over the past ten years. Her main focus is designing and implementing research and evaluation projects.

Bethany Lewis - Senior Consultant | BOP Consulting

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Bethany Lewis

Bethany Lewis

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