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News from Lemos&Crane

Research launch: Re-imagining Futures

Exploring arts interventions and the process of desistance

Sarah Frankenburg

12 November 2013

Thursday 7 November saw the launch of Arts Alliance’s report Re-imagining futures: exploring arts interventions and the process of desistance. The report is based on qualitative research conducted by Northumbria and Bath Spa Universities and makes a compelling case for the value of art projects in criminal justice. Based on evaluative research into five arts-based projects taking place across the criminal justice system, the authors explore the impact each of the projects have on their participants and discuss the potential implications of these evaluations for the role of arts in the development of desistance from crime. The discussed outcomes include shifting participants’ perspectives of their own capabilities, developing understanding of their identity – including past behaviour and the prospect of forging a changed future - the creation of ‘safe spaces’ in which to explore, take direction and experience (perhaps for the first time) mutually trusting relationships and developing confidence to express themselves and collaborate with others.

The launch, in a packed room in the Southbank centre in London, coincided with the Arts Alliance’s annual Ann Peaker debate. After the presentation of the research results, panellists Professor Rodney Morgan, Caspar Walsh and Gerard Lemos presented their response to the report before discussion was opened to the floor. The audience comprised many arts intervention practitioners from various charitable and independent groups as well as commissioners, researchers and other interested parties. They had, for the most part, all experienced for themselves the often transformational effect of art for offenders, ex-offenders, immigration detainees and those in secure mental health settings.

Discussion principally focused on questions of evidence; whether quantitative ‘hard data’ is viewed by public, politicians and commissioners as the only compelling evidence and, if so, how arts initiatives can make convincing arguments within this model.  The majority of arts-based projects working in the criminal justice system run for relatively short periods of time with comparatively small numbers of people and have their impact in hard-to-measure (and harder to attribute) characteristics such as confidence, self-perception and working with others. These characteristics make it more difficult to provide quantitative evidence or direct correlations between intervention and outcome.

Although a preferential evidence weighting towards quantitative data is often apparent in commissioning and policy influence, numerous speakers threw doubt on the idea that qualitative data has no place in the decision making process. Rather, it was claimed, get policy makers and commissioners to see for themselves the social, emotional and personal impact and potential of arts projects, and the message ought to be clear and compelling. There is no outcome, Professor Morgan observed, that cannot be made in to compelling - often numerical - evidence.Those involved in conducting and researching arts interventions therefore need to develop the ways in which they promote, research and record their work to best communicate their value. Just as many in the room felt commissioners and policy makers risk becoming over-awed by numerical data, so must arts practitioners not become over-awed – and disheartened - by its apparent influence.

Discussion also touched upon the underlying questions of the nature and role of art in secure settings. These were moments of insight into the unifying conviction of the audience that there is something transformational that art projects bring to criminal justice settings; that people’s experiences of the arts can have a profound and positive impact on how they perceive and express themselves. The debate raised important questions and observations as to the nature of this process: who are the real artists - the professionals or the ‘outsiders’? What is the nature of the therapeutic relationship between the artist and the object of art they create?  What counts as a meaningful change in an offender’s life, and is creative expression the only route to a transformed sense of self? What is it about the connection between offender artist and professional artist that allows the former to explore and express themselves in a way they’ve not otherwise been able to do?

Whatever the answers to these philosophical questions might be, they underpin the conviction of Arts Alliance and other exponents of the arts in the criminal justice system as to the enduring impact of their work. However you characterise the determining features of the relationship between artist, offender and artwork, for example, the offender more often than not emerges from the project with at least a new sense of their capabilities, a means of expressing themselves and an experience of a positively reinforcing relationship. Consensus was that these outcomes pave the way for a changed perspective – and potential rehabilitation.

Re-imagining futures comes in the same week that the Ministry of Justice published a series of ‘rapid evidence assessments’ which cover the ‘intermediate’ outcomes of different interventions. Intermediate outcomes can be classified as the shifts in attitude, relationships and reactions that can be directly or indirectly associated with reduced reoffending, for example improved behaviour in prison, relationships and self-image. They are indicators of a changed outlook; the same outcomes considered in Re-imagining futures and discussed widely at the launch. The REA emphasises the need for more research on the impact of the arts but states that the best available evidence currently suggests that arts in criminal justice can produce positive psychological changes for participants and improve in-prison behaviour, with more tentative evidence suggesting improved impact of education and rehabilitative interventions. Conviction as to the potential value of arts projects extends further, it seems, than arts in criminal justice practitioners. 

Although the question of evidence and communication of impact weighs heavily on both these documents, consensus is met that – whatever the particulars of the process might be – the arts can play a special role in the rehabilitation of many offenders, encouraging emotional and social outcomes that are crucial for continued rehabilitation; providing meaning, positive relationships and self-expression. With a nuanced and sophisticated view of evidence and communication of impact, arts interventions could secure a lasting role in the criminal justice system and positively impact the lives of thousands of offenders each year. Re-imagining futures is an important contribution to that process, and the launch was a clear indicator of the passion and conviction behind arts in criminal justice as to the transformational impact of their work. 

You can read more about Re-imagining Futures, and download a copy of the report, on PrisonerActionNet

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