Changeways summary

Promoting Partnership: Artists Working with Offenders

Walker, J.and Clark J. Changeways: Artists in Probation. Newcastle: Newcastle Centre for Family Studies, 2000.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was a continuing search for disposals that would keep offenders in the community, as well as for programmes that would occupy them constructively in activities which would impact positively on their attitudes and behaviour. It has been recognised that offenders frequently have talents which have not been realised and that arts activities may increase their chances of rehabilitation and decrease recidivism.

Between October 1991 and January 1997, Northumbria Probation Service, in partnership with the Artists' Agency (now known as Helix Arts), hosted seven artists in residence in five probation centres, two bail hostels and two community service projects. The artists were a ceramicist, a writer/playwright, a musician/composer (two residencies), a photographer, a visual artist (two residencies), a sculptor and a toymaker. Each of the residencies lasted for a period of six months. Both partners needed to know what value the residencies added to the more traditional forms of probation supervision, and the Artists' Agency wanted to increase awareness of the potential benefits of giving ordinary people access to the arts in a range of settings and to persuade agencies working in the criminal justice system that arts can be employed successfully in programmes which are primarily designed to tackle persistent offending. The residencies provided the ideal opportunity for the commissioning of independent research.

The main purpose of our evaluation was to assess the impact of the residencies on three distinct groups: offenders, the artists themselves, and probation staff. We adopted a participant observation approach in the residencies, and spent many hours talking with those involved. The emphasis was on seeking an understanding of the interaction between offenders, probation staff and the artists, and of the differing ways in which they saw their experiences as beneficial. Most of the offenders who took part were young, male, unmarried and unemployed. The most common offence committed was burglary, with driving offences and theft appearing on many criminal histories.

Setting up each residency took time, particularly as the Artists' Agency pursued a rigorous selection procedure, and there was a good deal of groundwork to be undertaken in the probation locations. The decision as to which art form to choose for each residency was often taken on a practical basis, taking into account which art forms were already available, or which facilities already existed. On the whole, probation staff were eager to experiment with new art forms, and it became particularly important for the offenders to see something tangible at the end of the residency. This was one advantage of using art forms which yielded a fairly quick, visual result. The artists, too, were expected to deliver various 'end-products' as part of their contract.

Working in a probation setting was a novel experience for all the artists and so each host environment was expected to provide an induction programme. In reality, the induction was often too little, too late, and artists felt as if they had been thrown in at the deep end, with very little background briefing and often with no identifiable working space. As the musician pointed out, any project needs its own identity, and you can't have an identity if you're continually moved from one place to another. Our evaluation clearly shows that the artist having a definite space in which to work was a contributory factor in the success of the residency.
Because of the limitations of the induction process and problems with space, all the artists were worried about how they would get clients interested. As one probation officer acknowledged, offenders don't walk in off the streets and ask to do things:

They have to be motivated, and the motivation often takes a lot of work.

The artists had to invest a great deal of time and effort in getting the residencies started and encouraging offenders to become involved, and even when people did show some interest, maintaining consistent attendance was often a struggle. Most residencies attracted a small core group of participants, with others coming and going somewhat erratically. Merely telling referring probation officers about the residencies, or displaying posters, did not ensure offender participation. This was frustrating for the artists, as it meant that it was some weeks into each residency before work could begin in earnest.

It is clear to us that the preparation stages of a residency are extremely important if it is to get under way efficiently and effectively. Enthusiasm for art and a belief in the value of residencies are not sufficient criteria, particularly in settings where the participants are likely to be somewhat reluctant. Impacts and benefits are not secured without planning and management.

Where Two Worlds Meet

The partnership between the Artists' Agency and Northumbria Probation Service brings together two very different professional worlds. Although attitudes towards the role of art in criminal justice programmes are said to have changed for the better in recent years, arts activities remain somewhat apart from the mainstream. Probation staff and offenders were often confused about the purpose of the residency. Not realising that the artists were independent of the service, offenders initially did not trust them and were suspicious of their motives. All the artists worked hard at building up trust, and over time they enjoyed being able to work outside the normal supervisory protocols of the probation service.

Artists in residence are clearly outsiders in the context of criminal justice settings, yet they need to become a member of the group however ephemeral the group may be. While most of the artists understood their somewhat delicate position as guests in the probation environment, many of the probation staff were less clear about the question of 'fit'. Staff and artists acknowledged the importance of support for the artist, particularly when offenders exhibited anti-social behaviour. This was especially important for female artists, who could feel vulnerable and intimidated in the midst of a predominately male client group.

Probation clients are demanding, and it would be foolhardy to believe that young male offenders would take easily to art forms which have little resonance with their everyday lives. Defining the nature of a residency, and being clear about roles and expectations, are critical elements in rendering a residency successful. Most of the residencies in this study were not clearly defined, resulting in a good deal of trial by error and learning on the job. Appropriate support for the performing of a very difficult role in a structured setting is a vital ingredient. The positive impact of artistic programmes cannot be sustained without the host agency having a strategic vision about the role of the arts which is shared by all those involved.

From Crime to Art

Evaluating the impact exposure to the arts had on a diverse group of offenders, some of whom had only minimal contact with the residencies, was no easy research task. Even for those who were ardent participants, the experience was only a small part of their everyday lives, many of which were inevitably beset by a multitude of social and personal difficulties. Of necessity we lacked before-and-after measures, and, in any event, establishing cause and effect is notoriously difficult in these kinds of social programme. Nevertheless, the offenders were largely positive about the experience: several reported increased personal confidence, and many appreciated the opportunities which had been opened up for them as a result of their developing practical and artistic skills. While most did not regard these benefits as necessarily preventing them from reoffending, they did acknowledge that there may have been indirect impacts on their behaviour.

Young offenders, despite the bravura nature of their criminal activities, are often lacking in self-confidence and have very low self-esteem. Taking part in artistic activities requires a certain level of confidence. As one probation officer put it, offenders are often dismissed, ridiculed, alienated, told that they are of no use, they are no good. Not all the art forms were equally popular. Music and photography were more popular than the other media. In some residencies, working one to one with an artist allowed offenders to receive very personal support, and we witnessed marked progress in artistic ability. In other residencies, the nature of the art form (music, for example) meant that clients needed to work together as a group and achieve an 'end-product' collectively rather than individually. The development of interpersonal skills and teamwork was an important learning experience for these offenders. As one offender told us:

It's a lot of hard work and a lot of responsibility … you have got to have respect for people.

There is no doubt that participating in a residency had a number of tangible short-term gains for many offenders. One of the key policy questions, however, relates to the extent to which the impacts are longer-lasting and have fundamental implications for the usually messy lives of young offenders. Offenders themselves described the longer-term impacts on a scale ranging from the critically significant to an experience that remained on the margin of their lives. For some, the changes were striking. One participant in a music residency described how he had had
the opportunity to develop a wider understanding of music -

I have written songs, taken part in recording at the Northern Recording studio, and next week expect to be back in the studio to do other musical projects.

Probation staff believed that clients were less defensive about the quality of their work as a result of increased confidence in their abilities. This made some of them a lot more able to talk about what was going on in their lives. In other words, increased confidence encouraged greater openness. This would suggest that there is a need for more refined and subtle measures of effectiveness than reconviction rates. Most offenders made no direct link between developing artistic skills and criminal behaviour, although some did begin to foresee a future without crime and felt that the residency experience had contributed to a change in attitude. As one young man put it:

It gives people a chance to realise that they can do something instead of going out and committing crime.

For most clients the residency was only part of the probation experience, and it is sometimes the whole experience which has the greatest impact. While the residencies may not have directly reduced reoffending rates, they undoubtedly widened the horizons of those offenders who got involved.

Another clear message from the research is that processes and products are both important. It was the process of being part of a residency which contributed to the development of new social and artistic skills, and the end-products which so often confirmed the extent of personal development. A common complaint from some of the artists, however, was that they felt caught between two agencies with different agendas. For the Artists' Agency, end-products were an obvious mark of the success of any residency. The probation service, on the other hand, appeared to be less concerned about end-products, placing more emphasis on process. It seemed to us that the clients were less concerned about end-products at the start of a residency, but for those who attended regularly end-products became increasingly significant as time went on. For example, the participants in the toymaking residency spoke of the value of the toys to the children who would be receiving them. One offender told us:

The work in the workshop is rewarding, because at the end you've got a product ... and it's going to kids who wouldn't have them anyway, from what I gather. So in the long run, you've done something for somebody else, so some good does come out of it. At the end of the day I can always say I helped make that ...

The exhibition of the toys in the local library, which received good media coverage, proved to one young offender that he had 'done something for the community'. Seeing members of the local community valuing the end-products enough to buy them was especially rewarding for the clients in the photography residency. Whatever the rewards, however, offenders rarely forgot that being involved in a residency was part of their punishment for committing crimes.

Artists on Trial

Artists needed to demonstrate two key attributes: professionalism and an ability to communicate their artistic knowledge to others. Professionalism was judged by the quality of the art work, but without the artist being able to relate to offenders with little artistic knowledge the process whereby work was produced would have been sterile and meaningless. The artists valued both attributes and endeavoured to strike a balance. As the toymaker put it:

There were various agendas around, the Artists' Agency agenda and the probation service agenda, and I felt a bit piggy-in-the-middle … and that I was there, in fact, to pull these agendas together and somehow weld them into something which suited everybody.

In taking up this role, few of the artists (apart from the writer) were able to complete much of their own work since they needed to channel their energies into helping the offenders. They all recognised that is was crucial to be realistic about what could be achieved in a relatively short space of time in an environment which was not always sympathetic to the arts. Nevertheless, the majority of the artists described the residencies as marking a significant point in their artistic careers. The residencies tested their artistic capabilities and the direction in which their work was going. For some, they offered a chance to change direction artistically and to take time out. Artists variously described how the experience had led to a process of self-realisation, increased their confidence in communicating with a wider range of people, and opened their eyes to other, very different lifestyles. Most of the artists went through moments of self-doubt but came out feeling positive.

Art on the Fringe

Probation staff, through a variety of community-based sentences, have endeavoured to work with offenders to reduce their offending behaviour and help them build new lives as law-abiding citizens. Although arts activities were not new to them, some participated enthusiastically while others remained on the fringe. One of the consequences of a government policy of being 'tough on crime' is that any activity which might be experienced as enjoyable may be perceived as being a soft option. As a result, some staff were reluctant to get involved, much to the disappointment of the artists. The photographer reported that she had invited staff to view their client's work, but said:

...nobody ever came to me and asked how they [the clients] were doing, or asked to see their work.

The response from staff was that they were too busy, and that, as one said, 'they had others things on which got in the way'.

Once some of the probation staff had participated in a residency they expressed surprise at the benefits which had accrued to them, including stress reduction, a sense of calm and the discovery of their own hidden artistic talents. The residencies offered unique opportunities for probation staff to work alongside their clients. Few took advantage of them, but those who did confirmed that it had impacts on their work:


It made me far more aware of the similarities between the approach which [the artist] used to collate material and to tease things out [and] the work which we do at the centre with clients ... it is the relationship-building and the trust-building, and trying to get people to blossom ...


Reaching a Verdict

At the end of the nine residencies, there were two key questions for the agencies involved: what did they achieve?; and, is the exercise worth repeating? Defining effectiveness depends on values. While both agencies would subscribe to the overall objective of improving quality of life, they may have different perspectives on how this might be achieved and evaluated. Officers believed that by enriching their clients' lives the residencies had made a real difference. Quantifying this is difficult, but many saw this as being of a higher order than merely calculating reconviction rates.

The end-products of the residencies testified to the success of the somewhat arduous process of attracting clients and keeping them interested. There was a transience about the client populations and about the residencies themselves. For the artists, simply encouraging clients to keep coming was a considerable mark of success. Further, when some of them showed they wanted to continue with the arts, this became for the artists a source of pride. But channelling in the right direction clients who had discovered new interests was a matter of some concern. The ability of offenders to use community facilities depends on their possessing a combination of self-confidence, the necessary resources, cultural motivation and conducive personal circumstances. Not many have this combination, and even when they do, community facilities may not be available, meaning that they are frequently socially excluded. The residences did indeed open up new worlds. Encouraging continued access to these other worlds is an important issue. There is a growing recognition by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that part of the Government's commitment to tackling social exclusion should be to encourage better access to arts opportunities.

Since the residencies began there has been a shift in the allocation and prioritisation of probation resources, and an increasing emphasis on investing scarce resources in evidence-based practice. As a result, the probation service is now tasked with increasing the employability of offenders. It will be important for artists to become skills trainers so that involvement in the arts has a clear educative function. If flexible penal sanctions are to be valued, and it tackling social exclusion is to be a high government priority, there must be some justification for including artists in the work of the criminal justice system, yet still remaining 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'.