When I was 8 years old my class, as happens in many schools, had a reformed ex-convict come in to tell us his story and to ward us off a life of crime (although to this day I'm still not sure how many 8 year old private prep school boys really harbour such intentions. Most of us just wanted to be astronauts.)
I remember the guy, who had spent 6 years in Brixton Prison for theft, showing us how he whiled away the countless hours in his cell. He'd taught himself to paint, and showed us examples of beautiful, delicate watercolours he'd created from scratch during his leisure time. No offence to him, but I remember not quite believing that this hulking, balding man-mountain in his mid-forties could have cooked up something so pure and intricate from behind bars.
This was, in part, because I'd never thought of prison as a place which could inspire any kind of creativity whatsoever. In the jails we see on TV and in films, offenders spend their time doing press-ups, playing basketball, trading contraband items and fist-fighting. And that's about all they do.
The other night I went with a couple of friends to see 'Re:Form' at the Southbank Centre, the 8th iteration of an exhibition displaying the prize winning pieces from the Koestler Trust Awards for works by British prisoners and secure hospital patients. The works on show are completely remarkable. Many of the touching poems, tirelessly-crafted sculptures and paintings wouldn't look out of place in any professional gallery in the world, yet they were made by relative amateurs. Each piece has its own unique story.
There is a growing school of thought that says that art may be able to prevent convicts from reoffending, and the artworks in 'Re:From' stand as clear testament to the truth that prison time can indeed be the source of tangible emotional and creative growth. Many of the creations on display are powerfully cathartic - the artists openly expressing their regrets for the past and hopes for the future, digging deep into the heart of their mental disarray and emerging with something beautiful.
All across the world, prisoners and patients are now starting to engage with art as a form of therapy, and long may this increase continue. With some artworks, like one man who made a 3-foot long replica of a cruise ships out of matchsticks, the virtue is in repetition and the focus on one project to its satisfactory completion. With the poems, it's all about coherent understanding and release of repressed emotions. Many of the works are submitted by people still in prison - these are real, current feelings being bared to the world. Arguably, it can do more than any hours of psychological counselling will ever do.
A stand-out piece from the display was called 'Postcards from Myself'. It's a collection of twelve postcards, beautifully hand-drawn with just a felt pen by the artist in his cell. On the reverse side of each is a tender message addressed to 'Me, aged 8' or 'Me, aged 24' as he combs over the memories and mistakes of his past.
One, illustrated by just a question mark, drives him towards his future self, and what he can achieve going forward. It's a moving piece dedicated to the changing nature of a man in turmoil and a past he longs to capture, and expresses a universal truth that we can all relate to. Let's not patronise here: this is not just 'prison art', it's real art, created by an artist as valid as any outside four prison walls.
The Koestler Trust deserves huge credit for its work with offenders and patients by prompting them to unearth their abilities. As Pablo Picasso famously said, "We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell." People with talents such as this deserve our recognition.