Safe Ground - Using drama to educate prisoners and young people at risk in the community


Production of Les Miserables at HMP High Down

‘LAGS MISERABLES’ hollered the front page of The Sun two weeks ago.  ‘CONVICTS at a drug-plagued prison performed a lavish version of musical Les Miserables for the public — to boost lags’ morale.’

As someone convinced of the transformative potential of the Arts; and of the absolute necessity of artistic provision in our prisons, this article was saddening, if not particularly surprising. Ten years ago, then-Labour-Home-Secretary Jack Straw ordered the cancellation of a comedy course in HMP Whitemoor on the unsubstantiated grounds that such a course was ‘inappropriate’. Commenting on the production of Les Miserables at HMP High Down, Tory MP David Morris suggested that ‘…prisons should be preparing offenders for release back into the community by training them for proper jobs or giving them skills. Getting to perform in a show like this is something most normal, law-abiding people can only dream of and would never get the chance to do.’ Evidence of a certain political unanimity of opinion on what should – or shouldn’t – be happening in our prisons? Well, perhaps, but it is a unanimity which is built on that great fallacy: that ‘reform and rehabilitation’ can coexist with punishment and deprivation of all that is good about life. It really boils down to this: our politicians want the residents of our prisons to stop offending; but only through strategies which cannot be interpreted as those residents ‘enjoying themselves’.

But the more one thinks on David Morris’ utterance, the more concerning it becomes. Because, for him, this isn’t about whether the Arts should be found in prisons: this is about whether the Arts are valuable at all. Again, perhaps this ought not to be surprising – we live in a society where music and drama and the visual arts are allowed to drop out of schools’ curricula; where they are discussed as ‘soft’ subjects, achievement in which is seen as less important than in others – a less useful metric of the success of a school – and where, ultimately, artistic endeavour is seen as a luxury, a frippery, even, to be indulged only when there aren’t more important things to think about, things to fund. His talk of equipping prisoners to find ‘proper’ jobs on release belies his disdain for the Arts; and his implication that performing in this show will have failed to ‘give them skills’ (as if prisoners simply walk into prison, are issued with ‘a skill’, and sent away to sin no more) demonstrates an utter ignorance of what well-constructed, well-delivered artistic programmes can achieve with those whose lives have never intersected with an opportunity to be creative; to express themselves.

This perfect storm of what Cambridge criminologist Sir Anthony Bottoms has termed ‘populist punitiveness’ and the consistent and relentless devaluing of the Arts has wrought terrible damage. But having a pop at politicians is easy: doing something about it is less so. A month ago, at the launch event for the latest cohort of ‘Unlocked Graduate’ prison officers, I met Louise Spencer, the new Governor of HMP High Down. She is typical of a new generation of forward-thinking, artistically-minded senior managers in HMPPS. Safe Ground has another of these on our Board, in the form of Gary Monaghan: it is people like this who, in the face of howls of outrage from the press, and resistance and worse from elected officials, push on regardless, convinced that what we do at Safe Ground (and lots of our colleague arts organisations) can be – and is – truly rehabilitative. But even if none of that were true – even if the communicative, practical, emotional skills which artistic endeavour helps develop didn’t exist – would that mean our presence was futile? Well, George Sand wrote that ‘The artist vocation is to send light into the human heart’: prisons are our society’s ultimate dark places, and if Les Miserables brought some light into the hearts of those who performed it, and those who watched it, then I think that’s a pretty convincing reason to persevere.


Written by Edward Smyth, advisor for the Board of Safe Ground


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