Artistic direction: An art scheme aims to reward prisoners who have embraced their creative side, but could it really help cut reoffending rates too?
2 April 2008

Peter Cameron is living proof that not all prisoners reoffend. Convicted of cannabis smuggling at 40, he spent five years in Full Sutton prison, Yorkshire. But after being released in 1992, he started a modest business in Liverpool with a fresh outlook on life. The secret of his redemption? Art.

During his incarceration, Cameron relieved the tedium by enrolling in the prison's art classes. Despite having little formal training, he discovered a latent talent that he could exploit fully. "The first picture I did, someone bought it for an ounce of tobacco," he recalls. "I thought, 'This is good, it's going to keep me going for a bit and give me business.'"

Then he heard about the Koestler award scheme, which was set up to recognise prison artists and exhibit and sell their artwork. Spurred on by his success, Cameron entered the scheme and ended up winning three prizes. It had a galvanising effect. "Winning Koestler took me outside the doors of prison," he says. "It was one foot out of the door, I didn't feel so excluded [from the outside world]."

Cameron's reflections are timely. At the end of last month, some 5,000 entries of creative artwork had been received for this year's Koestler awards. Prisoners submitted work in a range of categories, including creative writing, film, music and woodcraft. While rightwing commentators might deride all this as liberal gesturing, prison experts are convinced that the scheme offers unique benefits to prisoners.

One is the scheme's president and a former chief inspector of prisons, Lord [David] Ramsbotham. He says: "Time and time again [while prisons' chief inspector] I came across prisoners who were involved in work or education that followed on from painting, or making a piece of furniture, or being involved in a play."

Ramsbotham, whose liberal views on crime led to clashes with the then Conservative home secretary, Michael Howard, clearly believes that performance arts can be harnessed for the good of prison inmates. "Every work of art is a personal achievement. It can encourage prisoners to involve themselves in the education, work and training that might lead to a useful and law abiding life," he says. "I remain convinced of the immense value of the arts to the rehabilitation process, [even though it is] not something that can be measured in terms of the number of 'artists who do not reoffend'."

Dorothy Salmon, who worked for the Koestler scheme for 25 years, first as secretary and then as director, agrees with Ramsbotham's assessment: "Through direct involvement with the scheme and the judges who support it, very many prisoners achieve not only awards but, more importantly, self-respect. The confidence this brings enables them to participate in education and training courses leading to eventual employment and rehabilitation."

The Koestler awards scheme is named after its founder, the Jewish Hungarian emigre to Britain, Arthur Koestler. A thinker and novelist of distinction, he was imprisoned on three occasions - once during the Spanish civil war when he came close to being executed. His experience of incarceration helped Koestler to mould a humane approach to penal reform and he was subsequently a leading advocate for the abolition of capital punishment in the 1950s. In 1962, he set up the awards scheme, which sought to reward "creative work in the fields of literature, the arts or sciences by those physically confined". Koestler hoped that the spark of humanity inside every prisoner could be rekindled through the direct experience of high culture.

Andrew Coyle, a professor at the international centre for prison studies at King's College London, and a governor of Brixton prison from 1991 to 1997, believes that this spark cannot necessarily be measured in qualitative terms or in terms of its impact on reoffending rates. Instead, he believes that one must look for changes in the prisoner's character and outlook on life, the kinds of things that can influence better patterns of behaviour when prisoners are released.

"The great success of Koestler was that, for the first time, prisoners were being asked to do something positive that could be recognised by others," Coyle says. "It was the first time they had ever had any positive recognition of what they were doing. The fact that they had completed the work was the achievement. It raised their self-esteem."

Coyle has studied the culture of target-setting in prisons and seen its effect on reoffending. He is critical of how prison targets often have a discouraging impact. "Many of the targets in the prison system are negative targets, in that they seek to 'reduce' reoffending. It is a pretty basic feature of human nature that you respond better to encouragement. One way of doing that is to encourage prisoners to become involved in all sorts of creative pursuits," he says.
The chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, whose job it is to oversee Britain's 142 prisons, agrees that elevating inmates' self-esteem may be the most valuable feature of the scheme. "For the very first time, prisoners have something they can be proud of and where they show they can achieve something," she says. "You first have to get prisoners to believe in themselves. It is crucial that prisoners have done something for which they have public recognition, [and where they can see] that things can change for them."

Some people believe that better education provides the key to changing prisoners' lives. They are supported by the findings of a Home Office report in 2003 that showed that 37% of the prison population had a reading age of under 11. Owers, however, offers this caveat: "Very often, education is something that prisoners have failed at before they come to prison. You can get them into classrooms but whether they will engage in it is another matter. Softer skills, those that build on people's talents and don't seem too rigid and threatening, they make a difference."

Cameron's is a success story. Here is a reformed prisoner whose life chances were altered by the chance to be creative. The story is also a much needed ray of hope amid increasingly miserable prison statistics. Overall rates of reoffending also remain stubbornly high despite the best efforts of the prison service.

The crisis of recidivism is clearly not about to disappear overnight. But if the experts are right, the Koestler award scheme has a role to play in rehabilitating criminals whose lives
could otherwise be written off.

A dangerous anachronism

Blasphemy can be defined by the laws which seek to outlaw it. In countries across the world, these laws clamp down on those who profane sacred texts or holy objects and whose words and deeds insult the prevailing religious culture. Looked at in this way, blasphemy laws are a dangerous anachronism – a blight on any society that values freedom of speech.

In a genuinely tolerant and open society, religious beliefs, no matter how sacrosanct, cannot receive the same protection as people. They function within a global marketplace of ideas where they are subject to a rigorous process of intellectual scrutiny. Here they can be openly challenged, endlessly debated, mercilessly pored over, and, when their absurdities are obvious, mocked and satirised. This is the hallmark of an enquiring society.

Ideas must be defended in the court of public opinion, not in a court of law. That is why the UN resolution on the defamation of religion is similarly flawed. The law of defamation exists to defend the reputation of people, not that of entire religious groups and their belief systems.

With regard to some religious beliefs, the court of public opinion can be particularly scathing. The God of the Bible is frequently depicted as a ruthless, bloodthirsty, cruel and vindictive being who employs collective punishment wherever he finds sin. In the New Testament, the trinity and the resurrection, to say nothing of the miracle accounts, jar with our rationalist sensibilities. In Islamic practice, the use of capital punishment for apostasy is in direct conflict with western freedoms.

To ring-fence these beliefs from censure is to give them a privileged treatment they scarcely deserve. If they appear absurd and immoral by liberal standards, let us feel free to say so. If we are forced into silence, our society will descend into medieval backwardness.

The creators of Ireland's new blasphemy law might argue this is all a storm in a tea cup. After all, the law states after all that blasphemy must involve "outrage" for a "substantial number" of people, and mocking God's prickliness or Jesus' alleged miracles is hardly verbal dynamite.

They should remember the "law" of unintended consequences. Religious groups now have a perverse incentive to orchestrate more forceful protests in order to up their "outrage". We may see more militant attempts to censor irreligious plays, films and books in the hope that the authorities intervene. Will more people suffer like Salman Rushdie in 1989?

Blasphemy laws also discriminate against atheists. Not only do these "unbelievers" suffer endless calumnies without legal redress but they are singled out when it comes to offending religious groups. Many devout Christians are outraged when progressive co-religionists support civil partnerships. Wahhabi Islamists are incensed when moderate Muslims endorse liberal democratic values. Young-earth creationists recoil when their dogma is denounced by liberal preachers.

In each case, the former party feels aggrieved at the "heretical" infringement of their faith. But it is always the atheists who are the offensive blasphemers, never the religious dissenters. Surely a level playing field is required?

Clearly, not all attacks on the sacred are equally justified, especially when they are purely designed to cause maximum offence. But even here, there is a clear moral. If our feelings are hurt, it is far better to be censorious than to demand censorship. Blasphemy laws have no place in a civilised society.

Can you have Judaism without God? 29 December 2009

At first glance "secular humanistic Judaism" would appear to be the ultimate oxymoron. The Jewish faith is monotheistic and its great corpus of liturgies all revolve around the worship of a supreme being.

By contrast, humanists interpret the world without any reference to God. They are children of the Enlightenment who rely on science and reason to structure their understanding of the world. In the words of one Orthodox scholar, secular Judaism is like "vodka and tonic without the vodka". But maybe appearances are deceiving.

Judaism is more than a binding religious doctrine between man and the supernatural. It should be seen as a civilisation encompassing the ethical, social, political and historical life of the Jewish people, with religion merely part of the package.

As humanist Jews, we reject prayer, worship and most traditional religious ritual. But this does not mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead there is a focus on offering a secular interpretation of Jewish texts, religious holidays and practices to make them fit in with a more naturalistic perspective.

Instead of revering the Torah, the sacred code of rabbinic Judaism, as an infallible guide to human conduct, humanists will choose those parts that are congruent with modern ethics. For humanists, the second half of the Ten Commandments, in particular, the injunctions against murder, theft and adultery, remain sacred principles while other Biblical precepts, such as stoning adulterers and killing homosexuals, are alien and must be rejected.

Accordingly, the Jewish scriptures are viewed as the product of fallible human minds; a valuable socio-historical resource rather than a revealed supernatural drama. This is backed by historical scholarship which has revealed that the five books of Moses were written over a number of centuries, not created by divine fiat.

This emphasis on interpersonal behaviour rather than arcane ritual resonates with traditional Jewry. One of the most famous rabbinic sages, Hillel the Elder, was once asked by a non believer to spell out the entire Torah while standing on one foot.

Hillel did as he was asked and responded simply: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." No humanistic Jew could have put it better!

Jewish festivals and holidays are also central to humanistic Judaism except that they are detached from any supernatural association. On Pesach (Passover), we celebrate an inspiring account of liberation from bondage while being reminded about the ongoing struggle for freedom around the globe.

Shavuot, traditionally a celebration of the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, is re-interpreted as a joyous reminder of the power of words in the Jewish tradition. The festival of Purim reminds us of the power of human courage in facing down loathsome adversaries, in this case the Persian rogue Haman.

The weekly sabbath is a holy event in the lives of traditional Jews with its reminder of divine rest following six days of creation. For humanists, it is an opportunity to celebrate the extended family and the wider kinship with fellow Jews that makes survival possible. Supernaturalism is replaced by human centred values, though without abandoning Jewish practice.

Humanistic Jewish communities also offer life cycle events for birth, puberty, marriage and death, again with an emphasis on secular values. In the humanist philosophy, death is the final part of life and allows the community to pay tribute to the departed. It never seeks solace in an unknown and remote creator.

Naturally Jewish traditionalists will never accept a version of religion shorn of transcendence and divine redemption. To the Orthodox mind, secular Judaism appears stifling and arid, as well as a contradiction in terms.

But for secular minded Jews, it offers a chance to embrace a rich Jewish heritage without betraying rationalist principles. Vodka and tonic without the vodka? No, this is, to pardon the pun, the pure spirit of Judaism.