“It gives prisoners a sense of self-respect”

The Koestler Trust is the UK’s best-known prison arts charity and has been awarding, exhibiting and selling artworks by offenders, detainees and secure patients for over 50 years. Peter, a Koestler Trust entrant and mentee, writes about his experience.

If you want to know what’s going on in prison you have to read the walls. Most communication comes through some form of poster or official notice and every available space has a notice board; which is great if you can read, but not so good if, like a huge percentage of prisoners, you didn’t spend much time in school.

When I got to prison I used to read every notice religiously; everything from ‘official searching procedures’ to ‘gender dysmorphia treatment policy’. Mostly it filled some time, but there was also the paranoid fear that I might miss something important – like an act of parliament knocking a couple of years off my sentence. (Don’t scoff – it happens).

Most notices are dull photocopied affairs, so it makes a change when something colourful goes up. Soon after moving to my first long-term prison, I noticed a glossy poster on the education board. It was from the ‘Koestler Trust’. They were holding a national prison arts competition. I discussed it with the Art teacher. She told me this happened every year and was becoming increasingly popular – not least because of the cash prizes available for the best work.

I decided to enter. It wasn’t like I had a lot else to do. Quite a few of the other lads said they would too. One or two had even won awards previously and recommended it. Over the next few months, I made a selection from my best class work, and did a couple of pieces specially. These were then collated by the education department and sent off to the Koestler Trust.

That first year I entered four paintings and a couple of pieces of writing. After an anxious wait for the results, I won three or four third place and runner-up awards. Surprisingly I also sold two pieces. Just before Christmas I received my prize money, and bought a few extra luxuries: CDs, a couple of T shirts, a nice jar of coffee. But now I was hooked.

I entered the Awards every year from then on, and as the years passed I became increasingly aware of the key role the work of the Koestler Trust plays in the life of the prison population.

Firstly, it provides a goal. Something to get out of bed for. Motivation is a real problem in prison – especially for long-termers. When every day is exactly the same it is all too easy to think: ‘what’s the point?’ But the Koestler competition gives a shape to the year: creating and collating entries, sending them off, waiting for news, finding out the results, receiving feedback from the judges and celebrating any winnings.

But perhaps more importantly it gives prisoners a sense of self-respect.

The prospect of winning a little extra money might inspire the initial brush on canvas or pen to paper; but once the piece is finished the sense of achievement it brings should not be underestimated. Many times I have seen prisoners, who may never have achieved anything in their whole life, being genuinely moved at seeing a collection of their own creations. Sometimes it means such a lot that they can’t bear to send their work off to be judged – which might be a shame, but nevertheless it was Koestler that motivated them to do the work in the first place.

Before prison I wasn’t a typical offender. I didn’t have a drink or drug problem, I was well educated and I had a ‘proper’ job. But I nevertheless struggled with depression and low self-esteem, and I had a constant battle with crushing feelings of inadequacy. I was not used to getting any recognition for anything I did and I had no outlet for my creative abilities. Koestler changed all that. I won quite a few awards in prison, and the sense of achievement that brought was considerable. I discovered I might have the ability to write professionally, and now have a Koestler-appointed mentor to help me investigate that.

When you compare the impact of the Koestler Trust to its funding you cannot but conclude that it is stunning value for money. Indeed I would suggest that the Koestler Trust together with the Shannon Trust (who run the excellent Toe by Toe reading programme) between them contribute more to prisoner rehabilitation than any other prison initiative. Of course most prisons have education departments – but for many of them prisoner motivation is a major challenge. Many prisoners have such negative experiences of school that the idea of attending prison education is unthinkable – yet some of these same men will happily write a story or draw a picture to enter it for the Koestler Awards. I cannot overstate what an important thing that is.

Overall, prison can be a bleak place with few success stories. Thankfully the Koestler Trust is an exception. This is my ninth year entering the Koestler competition, and thankfully I have now been released. But the legacy of those annual competitions will stay with me forever.

Peter is a Koestler Awards entrant, prize winner and Scholar

You can find out more about the work of the Koestler Trust here.

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