“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” Dostoyevsky famously declared in his novel portraying the life of prisoners in a Siberian prison camp, crystallising the importance of understanding how we operate our processes of justice holds within our comprehension of a just society.  

Issues of Criminal Justice are particularly prominent in today’s conscience – whether through the troubling news that in-prison suicide and self-harm rates are currently at their highest levels since records began, the political unveiling of a new White Paper detailing plans for the biggest overhaul of the prison system for a generation by Justice Secretary Liz Truss, or, within the arts, Artangel’s current takeover of HMP Reading for an exhibition exploring its most famous resident, Oscar Wilde.

At FACT we have begun to work within local prisons as part of our extensive Communities Programme. Emerging from Veterans in Practice, our long term creative digital programme for military veterans, our work within the criminal justice system aims to approach the context of the prison system from a critically engaged position, moving the role of art within prisons from a traditional time-passing activity to one of active reflection and experimentation for all participants – prisoners, artists and staff.

In 2015 we ran a pilot project which engaged with veterans at HMP Altcourse and HMP Liverpool, and with family members. Working in collaboration with artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, the project used PS4 consoles and the game Grand Theft Auto V as an alternative platform for filmmaking. The resulting artwork FFGaiden: Control was screened at FACT earlier this year and has since travelled across the UK and further afield – most recently to New Orleans.   

Through a new partnership with Liverpool John Moores University, as part of their Reimagining Conflict research group, we took our creative prison projects to the American Society of Criminology Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, home to the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary. LSP (or Angola as it is more commonly known) is a maximum-security prison farm correctional facility, occupying a piece of land larger than Manhattan and perhaps representing our most Hollywood-fuelled visions of prison. Against this backdrop, the 3-day conference explored criminal justice through a fascinating combination of social, political, legal and scientific lenses but, perhaps as expected, the voice of the arts within this discussion was absent.

The question of art’s place within the prison system is an old one, but with increasing evidence for the benefits of creative interventions upon reducing reoffending, increasing confidence, wellbeing and social engagement, it seems critical for this voice to be present in the discourse of criminal justice, from individual prisoner pathways to wider policy making decisions.

As well as the tangible outcomes of arts interventions within prisons, art of course inhabits the world of the immeasurable; it is the vehicle through which we can begin to make sense of the world around us, to make our mark and to communicate the unspeakable.

Prisons are a part of our society, but they often seem to exist as exterior to our everyday lives. To experience art created by those within this system is to be confronted by some of the most unacknowledged voices within our society, and for these experiences to be missing means we can never wholly understand the complexity of our contemporary civilization.    

Find our more about FACT's Communities programme here.