BY Harry Stopes in Opinion | 06 APR 23

What Role Can Art Play in Prisons?

At Grendon Prison, Buckinghamshire, Ikon Gallery’s groundbreaking artist-in-residence programme provides inmates with an opportunity for self-actualisation

BY Harry Stopes in Opinion | 06 APR 23

Life in prison, for those whom society sends there, can be difficult, uncomfortable, occasionally unsafe and, above all, boring. As a result, prisoners have always used whatever means available to distract themselves. Sometimes, if the circumstances permit, this means making art, with the results ranging from elaborate handicrafts to a simple greeting card for a loved one – as movingly depicted in the BAFTA-winning BBC television drama Time (2021–ongoing).

Art as an organized, properly equipped and relatively skilled practice behind bars is much rarer. Prisoners struggle to access all but the most basic materials – in the UK, they are allowed pencils, pens, paper and some stationery in their cells – while studio space and specialist equipment are even harder to come by. Even if a prison offers art classes, underfunding means that they won’t always have enough officers to supervise them. One reason so many UK inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cells is because that’s the cheapest way to run a prison.

‘Art at HMP Grendon, There is no masterpiece’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; photograph: Dean Kelland

This context underlines the singularity of the artist-in-residence programme run at Grendon Prison in Buckinghamshire by Ikon, the Birmingham-based contemporary art gallery. Grendon is unique in the British prison system, functioning as a democratic therapeutic community in which inmates undergo an intensive programme of group therapy designed to help them understand and address their offending. According to the UK government’s justice inspectorate report from 2017, studies have shown significantly lower rates of reoffending for former Grendon prisoners compared to those held elsewhere. 

In existence since 2010, and funded by a charitable trust established by the late Austrian-British artist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, Ikon’s art programme offers prisoners serving long sentences – life, in many cases – sustained teaching in a range of media. Under the direction of the current artist-in-residence, Dean Kelland, an unused prison outbuilding has been transformed into a combined workshop and gallery space, in which the work of professional artists can be displayed while the inmates learn new skills in printmaking, painting and etching. It is perhaps the only prison-based art gallery and art school anywhere in the world. 

Dean Kelland
Dean Kelland, Notes from HMP Grendon, 2022, collage on paper. Courtesy: the artists and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

A few weeks ago, I attended a special exhibition at Grendon, where I met Kelland and several of the prisoner-artists he has been working with. Prints, etchings, paintings and drawings hung on the walls. Trauma was a common theme: one prisoner, who later led a demonstration of screen-printing techniques, displayed a series of drawings of young boys looking scared and alone. One has a piece of tape over his mouth, on which is written ‘HELP ME’. Another artist, inspired by kintsugi, the Japanese craft of decorative repair, had worked with two simple armchairs of the kind used in group therapy sessions at the prison. Broken seams in the upholstery are loosely repaired with gold thread, partially concealing the words ‘Past’, ‘Offender’ and ‘Human’ embroidered beneath. We can mend ourselves through therapy, the work implies, but the repair will always be visible.

Running an art school in a prison poses practical challenges, Kelland explained, particularly given the understandable emphasis on safety. Etching tools, which hypothetically could be repurposed as bladed weapons, are signed out to individuals at the start of each session and must be signed back in at the end. Only water-based inks can be used, since solvents might present the opportunity for abuse. 

Dean Kelland
Dean Kelland, 2022. Courtesy: Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 

Despite the fact that the programme is funded by a charity rather than public money and serves a tiny number of inmates in a unique facility, the idea of prisoners enjoying art classes at Grendon could meet with the disapproval of some. Yet, engaging with art provides inmates with an opportunity for self-actualisation: a chance not only to express themselves but to understand themselves and, in the best-case scenario, to imagine themselves anew. As one prisoner explained in a speech to the exhibition guests, Ikon’s programme ‘allowed me to come at myself from an oblique angle – to see something different about myself’. If we truly want prisons to equip inmates with the means to change – which, ultimately, will benefit all of us – we should afford them the means and the encouragement to express themselves through art.

Dean Kelland’s exhibition ‘Imposter Syndrome’, the results of his four-year residency at Grendon Prison, Buckinghamshire, Europe’s only wholly therapeutic prison, opens at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, in September 2023.

Main image: ‘Art at HMP Grendon, There is no masterpiece’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; photograph: Dean Kelland 

Harry Stopes is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. He is working on a book about the history of prisons.