Up until quite late in the 19th century, English prisons were places for punishment, not rehabilitation. They were seen as places of exquisite torture where prisoners – men, women, and children – would, for example, have to turn a crank handle a required number of times a day. This handle performed no useful purpose other than to pick up cupfuls of sand and empty them in an enclosed box outside their cell. If the warder felt particularly vindictive they could tighten the screw to make the process more arduous. Hence the universal prison slang term ‘screw’.

We might well be heading back into less enlightened times like these if The Sun newspaper has any say in the matter. We could see a big comeback for sewing mail bags and picking oakum and the treadmill, not to mention thumbscrews, the rack, and other choice instruments of torture. Bring back the Inquisition, hanging’s too good for them!

With more than 80,000 people locked up in prison we have to ask ourselves the question: with all but a handful coming back out on a street near you soon how do we want them to be when they’re released, better or worse? Education and the arts in prison offer a major contribution to their rehabilitation. If we start to limit their scope then the balance between incarceration and rehabilitation shifts dangerously in one direction.

We already have one of the lowest rates of escape in the world. Our prisons are secure. They do what they say on the tin and keep people convicted by the courts in custody. But the other half of the Prison Service mission statement states that we also treat them with humanity and attempt to try and help them lead law-abiding lives when they’re released.


The Sun newspaper has set itself the task of leading a campaign to ensure that everyone serving time should suffer as much as possible. It completely misses the point that being sent to prison, losing your freedom, is the punishment, being in prison should be about rehabilitation.

The government recently instigated a new core day in prisons and closed down all activity on Friday afternoons in an attempt to save £17 million. However, this has also meant that prisoners now spend significantly more time in their cells. This neither contributes to their rehabilitation nor helps with a prison’s general culture.

For a prison to function well it needs good communication, something which is notoriously lacking at the best of times. There has to be a free flow of information and views between prisoners and staff to combat rumours and to allow open discussion about issues. Keep them bottled up and you create a pressure cooker in already overcrowded prisons.


Two significant ways in which this can be tackled are through prison magazines and radio. Writers in Prison Network has been a major champion for setting up prison magazines. They offer a forum for the exchange of information and the discussion of issues. Governors and staff have the opportunity to explain regime changes or advertise the available activities whether it’s the chaplaincy, the gym, healthcare, or education. Prisoners can air their views, and debate contentious matters in the ‘public’ arena, and staff can put their viewpoints in return in open, balanced coverage which, in the words of the Howard League for Prison Reform, creates “a healthy prison”.

With the National Union of Journalists, the Network has pioneered the ‘Pathways to Journalism’ course which not only produces prison magazines to a professional standard but carries with it qualifications and transferable skills. It contributes both to the prison’s health and to prisoners’ education.

It’s a logical extension of this approach that leads us to prison radio. The very first radio station in prison was at HMYOI Feltham, dating back to 1994. Inspired by this, Mary Stephenson, the writer in residence at HMP Channings Wood helped to set up ConAir around 2000. Like the magazines, the radio stations not only greatly enhanced communication in the prisons but taught valuable skills to prisoners.

Radio in prison offers a superb additional tool both for education and communication. It has the additional advantage over a printed magazine due to the widespread problem with prisoners’ literacy – around 60% are below Level 1 literacy. And because it can be piped directly into the cell it’s immediate and easily accessed by everyone.

In 2006 the charity Prison Radio Association was launched with Phil Maguire as chief executive. Patrons include Jon Snow and Shami Chakabarti.

Gerry Ryan, the Network’s writer in residence at HMP Rye Hill took advantage of the training and support offered by the PRA and started a radio station. Among one of the jewels in its first year’s crown was the production of a prison soap which won first prize in the Koestler Awards.

The Prison Radio Association itself was named Best New Charity in 2008. Partly on the strength of this and encouraged by the results of burgeoning prison radio stations – over 60 are now working with the PRA – the Ministry of Justice has been considering for the last year a proposal to set up a national prison radio station beaming programs into the cells of more than 140 prisons.

The technical details of how the station will be broadcast have yet to be explained but with most cells now capable of receiving TV through loop systems on the wings the infrastructure to broadcast directly to prisoners is already in place.

Gerry Ryan and Alistair Fruish, writers in residence at HMP Littlehey, saw the great potential this facility offers and developed a project called Ipad (In-cell Purposeful Activity Development) which proposed using the medium to deliver the creative arts to engage prisoners in recordable purposeful activity while they are locked in their cells.

At HMP Garth the Network has worked with the prison and its education department to create a Media Centre using video, audio, and print to enhance what the regime offers.

These are numerous other initiatives by the Network and a whole range of arts in prison organizations – such as Geese Theatre, Clean Break, Escape Artists, Music in Prisons, and Rideout to name but a few – which demonstrate that the arts in the criminal justice movement are alive and thriving… and in demand by prisons.


Writing in The Guardian (5 November) Lord Ramsbotham, ex-Chief Inspector of Prisons praised the setting up of the Arts Alliance and Arts Forum which created an interface between arts in prisons organizations and government departments. “At last,” he said, “the government appears to have recognized the important role that the arts, collectively, have to play in the rehabilitation process by encouraging self-esteem. As triggers, the arts are means to the essential end of reducing reconviction rather than being ends in themselves, but their contribution is invaluable… All the evidence proves that such an approach works.”

Barely two weeks later Jack Straw, Minister of Justice, closed down the Comedy School’s course at HMP Whitemoor in a knee-jerk reaction to a headline in The Sun. The Comedy School is an outstanding organization with more than a decade of work in prisons with an impeachable reputation. Through comedy they teach literacy, working with others, and learning to be more human, and more compassionate. “I wasn’t aware that comedy was a crime,” said director Keith Palmer in a recent Radio 4 interview. “I’m trying to understand what other areas of criminal justice The Sun gets to decide?”

This was followed by a Prison Service Order, issued on 6 January warning governors that all activities had to “meet the public acceptability test.”

In The Independent on Sunday (25 January) Lord Ramsbotham called the PSO “lunacy”. The Ministry of Justice “produced this extraordinary order saying that only activities that would be approved of by the public would be allowed. Who’s going to be the judge? It was a gross overreaction. What the voluntary sector does in prisons is work to help people rehabilitate. If you say you really are trying to protect the public, you’ll damage that, if you don’t allow rehabilitation.”

Since the PSO the Ministry of Justice has announced that £2 million, drawn from existing budgets, is to be invested in a national prison radio station.

The Sun was ready with its response, complaining about “pampered lags”. Shadow Justice Minister Edward Garnier commented, “It’s ridiculous spending this sort of money to pamper prisoners more.” One wonders whether he’s actually spent any time in a prison recently.

As Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust says, “Draconian cuts and fear of tabloid headlines will reduce prisons to human warehouses and staff to mere turnkeys. Shocking self-harm and reconviction rates ought to be the public acceptability tests that keep the justice secretary awake at night.” (The Independent, 25 January)

The Arts Forum is actively working with the Ministry of Justice and David Hanson MP to try and help them find a more consistent approach to the arts in prison and how it links in with both education and rehabilitation. Tabloid newspapers should not be allowed to set policies, that way madness lies.

As columnist Libby Purves wrote in The Times (26 January), “The track record of UK prison arts and theatre groups is stellar.”

Perhaps the last words should go to ex-offender/journalist Erwin James. While serving time at HMP Long Lartin he saw a concert by singer-songwriter John Martyn. “[He] gave the performance of a lifetime. For two hours, in a place where hope was the rarest commodity, he lifted hearts and humanized souls like nothing I had ever experienced. [It] reminded us that we were members of the human race.” (The Guardian, July 2008)

The arts work.

Further reading: