How a little praise in prison can go a long way

How a little praise in prison can go a long way
Erwin James, The Guardian

One of the highlights at this year’s Edinburgh festival is the Arts by Offenders exhibition. It is the second time the Koestler Trust, a prison arts charity, has exhibited at Edinburgh, and the response from visitors suggests that the Co-operative-sponsored show could be an annual fixture. It includes entries from 14 Scottish prisons, a children’s secure unit and a special hospital.

Sarah Grainger-Jones, events co-ordinator at the trust, believes that there are many reasons for encouraging people in prison to take part in creative activities while paying their debt to society. "So many people in there lack confidence or self-worth. Creating art can build self-esteem and give people a sense of value that they might not have had before," she says.

"A mother of one of the artists said to me that it was so good for her to see something her son had done that she could really be proud of, instead of having to cope with the effects of his offending. Another of our artists, who had never created any kind of art before, produced an amazing painting and then just stuck it in a cupboard in the prison education department. A teacher saw it and suggested he enter it to the Koestler awards. He won a gold award for it. It was a stunning achievement.

"It seems that a bit of praise for doing something good might just be a catalyst for inspiring change in behaviour."

Grainger-Jones’s words took me back to the day in 1995 when I won a Koestler award. After having had a positive experience with prison education during the previous 11 years of my life sentence, I had got it into my head that had things been different in my early life – long before I began causing harm and distress to others – I might have been able to make it as a writer. I wrote a piece about an associate who had hanged himself in his cell. A teacher suggested I submit the piece to the Koestler judges. There were hundreds of entries for that year’s prose category, but I won first prize. Receiving the certificate fired my determination to write my way into a better way of living.

This year’s UK awards have attracted more than 5,000 entries nationally across 56 art forms, including creative writing, music, film, dance and visual arts. Around a third of all entries win awards and cash prizes of up to £100. Selecting from each year’s entries, the trust also runs a national exhibition of art by prisoners.

Arthur Koestler, a former political prisoner and author of Darkness at Noon, founded the awards in 1962. He died in 1983 but his vision lives on inside and outside prison walls. One winning entrant from the Scottish exhibition sums up why the Koestlers are so important: "Winning is a massive boost. It changes your whole line of thinking when someone gives you praise."

As I can attest, in prison, a little praise goes a long way.

• The Co-operative Koestler exhibition is at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, until 3 September. Details at scotland2010.html The 2010 national exhibition of prison art is at Southbank Centre, London, from 29 September to 14 November.