Prisons in the UK today are experiencing record high populations, with widespread complaints regarding overcrowding. Add to this the growing concerns over mental health of prisoners, reinforced by the recent Ministry of Justice suicide rate figures, and it's easy to appreciate the challenges presently facing the criminal justice system.
Clearly the severity of the current situation in prisons warrants immediate and significant action to reduce prison populations, but it was welcome news to hear of the Secretary of State for Justice's plans to invest in prisoners' needs and appropriate rehabilitation.
Research shows us that mental health and well-being issues are much more prevalent among those involved in the criminal justice system, than seen in the general population, highlighting a greater need for support. Critically, mental health and wellbeing are statistically linked to risk of reoffending. Yet over the last few years we've seen significant funding cuts to the criminal justice system, reducing many of the programmes put in place to help support prisoners and help with rehabilitation, including arts-based interventions.
I'm very passionate about the use of the arts in the criminal justice system, and have conducted numerous research studies on arts-based programmes with adult men and women in prison, as well as for young people on community sentences. This could be anything from painting, to music, literature or dance, but one of the aims is to help offenders use the arts to express their emotions, whether positive or negative.
Through participation in arts-based activities, individuals learn to foster their emotions in a safe way and may use the arts as an emotional outlet for any negative emotions. The positive regulation of emotions has been linked to increased well-being and decreases in anger and aggression, and by building and maintaining positive emotions offenders can learn to build resilience to counteract stressful life experiences.
I've seen first-hand the results that can be achieved through arts based programmes. Crucially, my research has shown that not only can the arts improve the mental health and wellbeing of offenders, but they can increase their probability of living a crime free life in the future.
I saw evidence of this during my recent work with the Youth Offending Service. I carried out research over two-years on a music project for young people in contact with the Youth Offending Service and found - among other things - statistically significant improvements in participants' well-being over the course of the project. In addition, my findings showed that participants who completed the music programme were more likely to comply with their sentence than a control group of young people who did not attend the music programme.
So why is it that when funding budgets are tight, we cut such an effective tool to improve the mental wellbeing of offenders - the arts?
There are several reasons for the reduction in funding for arts-based programmes in prisons, including recent reforms, but it's important to acknowledge that while we're in a climate where statutory funding for the arts has been decreasing, the economic value is clear: there is substantial evidence that the impact of the arts on wellbeing is cost-effective. If we could remove some of the hurdles that those within the criminal justice system face in order to simply access arts-based programmes, it would free up more time for the actual programmes to be run and therefore the support to be given to those who really need it.
Finally, it's integral that we change the current perception of arts in the criminal justice system. The results speak for themselves, but not everybody has been exposed to the real benefits implementing arts-based programmes can have. I know that I've witnessed prison staff who state they don't see the value of arts programmes, but on seeing prisoners flourish during and after participating in an arts programme, become an advocate for this work. If we're really focused on improving the health and well-being of those involved in the criminal justice system then winning the hearts and minds of criminal justice staff, the Ministry of Justice, and the government, is vital. The power of the arts is something not to be ignored, and as Susan Sontag said about literature in a New York Times interview in 1992, "What do we have from the past? Art and thought. That's what lasts. That's what continues to feed people and give them an idea of something better. A better state of one's feelings or simply the idea of a silence in one's self that allows one to think or to feel. Which to me is the same."