Final conference thoughts on prison education

My presentation was scheduled for 10 am on the Tuesday morning. All I had to do was survive the ‘conference dinner’ in tact. No mean feat, those Aussies sure can drink. I was feeling bit flat before the dinner I had been meeting and greeting so many strangers and ‘selling my self’,  gets a bit tiring. The conference dinner started with a talk by Kylie Farmer, a proud indigenous Australian actress who has done a lot of work in her original language. She was amazing, beautiful, charming and had a lot of thought provoking stories from her culture and her people. Kylie talked a lot about language, she had presented a children’s TV programme in her original language – I since found out she’s done a TED talk on it. She stresses the importance of language to feel connected to your community and the land. The connection with the ‘elders’ of the community that raised her and the passing on of the language leads to a deeper and more authentic connection.  It made me quite sad listening to her that I could never interact with my own mother and her family in their mother tongue of Italian. Perhaps a bit of a feeling of ‘otherness’ or ‘outsider’ from my childhood comes from this.  It probably has deeper repercussions than my parents or I realise, for my connection to that community, one to save for my therapist – but its not really rocket science is it? (*books Italian lessons, again…)  I did end up on the dance floor, like a bad wedding, in the corner of the conference dinner room, seems its the Juvenile workers – the ‘Juve’s’ who can party the hardest.



There had been a few sessions on digital technology in prisons – what appears to be apparent, the same as in the UK I think, that there is no consensus or joined up thinking. In fact one presenter was reporting back on a European conference and said the same. This is a global lack of consensus then – there are pockets of innovation and some prisons trying things but it is dotted around and varied with mixed successes. It was agreed it would be good to have a joined up ‘evidence library’ of what is happening where and what works. We all hear about the connectivity in Norway, but even there it is not every prison, I saw some great projects in Australia that would not go in the UK, but then again I am taking iPads into Sodexo prisons but other prisons laugh me out of town at the suggestion.

New Zealand were piloting some interesting work. They felt is was a duty of care to prepare people for the online world they go out to, the feel ‘obligated’ to train people in that technology, which I strongly agree with – so they offer a few courses online, real online courses like driving theory and things that people in prison might really want to learn.

I had a good turn out for my session, about 30-40 people, it was a success. Many people came up and thanked me and said how moved they had been. Of course I played my trump card, where was the prisoner voice? why am I the only ex-prisoner here?  People earnestly held my hands and kissed my cheeks in thanks and said they had been moved to tears. Result. I spoke about my new employee Fabian Spencer, an ex – prisoner, actor and now going into prisons as a Stretch story teller.

I spoke about the importance of celebrating the good stories, or providing peer support. The art teachers and the creatives all ‘got it’ of course – also a lot of interest from some weighty criminologists. I met a fascinating English couple now living in Australia – both Doctors of Criminology in their 60’s – he had spent time in prison many moons ago. I had really wanted to show some of the work from the AMC centre but they had not been cleared by security yet, I am still waiting. The team at Victoria who had been so supportive were thrilled at the response – we talked about ways they could incorporate the methods into their work. If I pushed it I think they might invite me out to do some training with their education staff. Fancy that.

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Tuesday afternoon saw people presenting their academic research, sounded deathly dull and I was suffering from mental over load already – but actually turned out to be really interesting. Anne Pike is a from the UK and she works for the Open University and was looking at how prisoners and  ex-prisoners cope with being students. A few universities have thought about packages for prisons, as so much of being a student is now delivered online. She also touched on ‘asking the prisoners themselves’ what they want. Fiona McGregor made an inspirational presentation on looking at prisoners relationship to education in terms of desistance theory. I have a couple of possible PhD ideas that have been swimming around the back of my mind for while, one around storytelling and desistance theory and one around using your imagination to fight disconnection. As I listened to their presentations,  I thought ‘I really could do this’ – I might make fresh enquiries upon my return to the UK.

The conference wrapped up without too much of a fanfare, I was mentally exhausted and sloped off quietly, I could chase every one up in emails. On the whole it was what I had expected, pockets of brilliance but a general slip in to US style practice. Very difficult to have a unified thought with such differing state laws and vast geographical and cultural differences.  As in the UK, very much affected by the politics and public opinions of the day.


Thoughts at the conference opening

My nose was already a little bit out of joint before the conference as I had asked to deliver a workshop and they had said no, I was immediately sniffy about the programme and the key note speakers. They were looking a lot to North America and had a couple of US speakers. The programme was top heavy, looking down – a lot of big research papers, lots of figures and theories – a lot of academics telling everyone what the best thing to do with the ‘crims’ was – that was how it seemed anyhow on first reading.

My friends at Victoria Corrections, Deborah and her colleagues, were really keen that I present my work and shoehorn my way in to an impromptu workshop – so buoyed with a few wines at the opening drinks, I hassled the  organisers about what a waste is was that they had practice from the other side of the world here and no one was listening. It worked and they found a slot for me on the Tuesday morning. Plenty of time to drum up support. I made little poster saying the two things that seemed to be missing were the PRISONER VOICE and accessing education through THE ARTS. I was pleased to think that at a conference in the UK such as this, you would definitely have representatives from the prison community showing you examples and telling you things from the grass roots up. Tasmania is a small state, capital city only 80,000 people – so as with Canberra they can try things a bit different and implement change quickly. Their government  minister for justice said a lot of good things about basic needs for prisoners and actually mentioned self worth as being one of those needs. They had a few nice craft projects whereby prisoners were making things for the local hospital and homeless shelters – I thought that could be a good industry cycle, to make blanket or clothes for homeless, etc.

As the speakers and workshops began a lot of it was, as I expected, academic rigour and cost analysis of reoffending of course – but I was pleased to see that some of the grassroots and ‘arts’ and holistic work was being presented in the workshops, dressed up as ‘indigenous work’ – a lot of the work that goes into engaging the Indigenous Australians is the work that basically applies to anyone who is harder to engage and we could talk about the whole swathe of ‘underclass’ – recidivists, lower socio economic groups – what ever your name for them – the hardest to reach, who often have fallen out of education and into continual street crime. The workshops that were doing inventive things with the hardest to reach (Indigenous Australians) were the most interesting to me.

Ian Trust from an Aboriginal organisation  presented a fantastic film and metaphor which could be applied to any sector of society that is lost in the welfare net. All these issues could be applied to the hardest to reach of the criminal justice world, our own poverty stricken so called ‘under class’ – Afro-Americans in the US. Really interesting what he said about the low expectations of the community too. I was very moved.


Susan Lockwood is a weighty American scholar who presented findings from a huge study called the RAND report about the effectiveness of correctional education. It was not something I had come across, but it was apparently what many states based their new regimes on. No massive surprises, with big quantitive studies that proved in a language the social economists understand; for every $1 spent on Education $5 saved on recidivism and 43% of prisoners had lower odds of re-offedning if they accessed education. Good meaty facts.

Employment was a big focus of this conference – in fact the name ‘The pen, the hammer or the mouse,’ I had misread, I thought the hammer was a judicial hammer (!? as in sentencing and punitive)  not the industry hammer….Anyway, so there was a lot of discussion about prison industry. They had a key note speaker at the end of the day Karen Brown who runs a prison industry group in the US who was boasting of her profit of $95 million from prison industry. I was pretty appalled at this looking up to the American system and told anyone who would listen, we should not be looking to the US for much wisdom at all. Prison industry in the US promotes longer sentences and incentives to keep up the prison work force, it is tantamount to modern day slavery. Cooperates lobby for longer sentences, small businesses cannot compete with the cheap labour force. Some of the Australian prison staff however really just seemed to have dollar signs in their eyes. At what cost? I did not even stay for her presentation, as I needed time to prepare my own for the next day.

I did find some of ‘my people’ – the art teachers of course, the people running the pilot radio project, the people running the basic skills through creative industry. I watched a great presentation from a driven and bubbly team out of Western Australia.


Here they had used puppets to illustrate little public service films about issues that effected the community – she brought a lot of puppets to the workshop and we all got have a play. Much more my kind of thing. From the title of the workshop how ever, it was all about issue based learning and digital skills – we all have to jump through the jargon hoops to get the slots we need. In the same way perhaps I emphasise the digital education in digital story telling to big up the employability. I was inspired by the use of the digital skills to make ‘public service’ films and campaigns. In the prison in Victoria the women had created a digital campaign about domestic violence. It made me think there could be something in that – getting people to create stories and campaign films about issues they live with; abuse, addiction, violence, all sorts of things. Think there could be a good application for Stretch in there somewhere….*adjusts thinking cap*



New Museology at MONA and an idea

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As a graduate of a Masters in Museum and Gallery Education I am always interested in galleries and museum spaces that try something new. I grew up in the house of a lecturer in design who used to take me to gallery openings and exhibitions, my first degree in Classics saw me recovering from my student hangovers in the cool rooms of the British Museum and losing my self in the John Soane. It is very much ‘my world’ and the much of Stretch’s activity in the past has involved museums and galleries, trying to normalise the museum world, trying to take people not at home in that space to the gallery space, trying to examine the value of collections and stories.

I am fascinated by the story of MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. Built by a philanthropist and benefactor who made all his money from gambling, it is in fact a brilliant personal collection. David Walsh is a playful intellectual and what he has created certainly turns on its head traditional ideas of museology. From Enlightenment Thinking we still have a the notion that galleries and museums are a place to ‘better yourselves’ and learn ernest things (even about art) – and much as they try, even places like Tate Modern still have this feeling, filing past the ‘must see’ exhibition becomes a chore – fatigue sets in easily – buy the postcard and the fridge magnet and get out quickly.


It helps that MONA is set out in a remote promontory in Tasmania, this obviously effects my visitor experience, and that the sun is shining. From beginning to end of the trip there is feeling of specialness, it is fun, I am being spoilt. The ferry terminal and the boats are owned by MONA and are painted and playful with music, a smart food and drink bar  and ‘art’ and sculpture around the decks. The entrance to the gallery is dramatic, a stone stair case up the hill with striking sculptures at the top. The gallery itself is like a set from a James Bond film, the classy bad guy would live here – in his remote underground bunker. The art is set underground in a three tiered basement cut into the rock. Huge walls of exposed rock create passageways and smart champagne bars. It’s sexy and exciting. David Walsh has apparently collected art around the subjects of sex and death, but this pretty much covers everything. There is no particular order, older Egyptian Tombs and Roman death masks sit along side a Damien Hirst. Some of the art is challenging to say the least, 70 plaster cast vaginas line up along a wall, a suicide bomber in dark chocolate and even a machine that processes food, mimicking exactly our metabolism and producing excrement that smells, well like our excrement. It is not for every one, I heard a lot of commentary from visitors about ‘that not being art’ – but for me I found a lot of the work arresting and beautiful, films, waterfalls, whole rooms given up to a whim. I especially liked the 4 part exploration of a pacific island project by Matthew Briand; boats, films, huts and reconstructions fill a whole gallery – an immersive trip to another world. The whole gallery has a ‘play ground for grown ups’ feel about it – which appeals to me.

I am not usually one to walk around with head phones on listening to the prescribed instructive voice, I prefer instead to have my own dialogue in my head – and perhaps snippets of other peoples conversation. The media tour on offer is the most user friendly device I have encountered, in that you can use it as little or as much as you like. The exhibits have NO WORDS or titles next to them, so you take the ipod touch and press a button and all the works near you come  up on the screen. If you want further information you click on it. There is a brief description. If you want the full story you press the ‘art wank’ button and get the full artists statement. I know, I know, a bit like the ‘arty bollocks generator’  it’s puerile and childish, but it made me laugh. It’s a playful place. There is an art cinema underground onsite that was showing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet from the National Theatre that day.

The beauty of the iPod tour is that your tour is saved by the machine so everything you looked at, rather than reading about it there and then, you can have your tour emailed to you after the visit and all the art works info there a long with a 3D map of your visit. Genius if you ask me. This was a great use of the technology.

Outside of the gallery there is a tennis court, a trampoline with a view over the cliffs of Tasmania and various impressive sculptures and buildings. Pathways lead to view points with outdoor sculptures to explore. There are a few restaurants, one very smart, one more informal, a vineyard which produces his own wine and few boutique cottages to rent. There is a beautifully manicured lawn and a stage and MONA host regular music events, a festival in January where The Flaming Lips, Kate Tempest and the like are playing. David Walsh has seen the connection with art and music.  This afternoon a jazz bad from Sydney are playing and I enjoy a reasonably priced sparkling rose while watching a few tame ducks and chickens strut around. I am in heaven – hedonists playground. I really admire the bringing together of the Dionysian ethos of sensuality, spontaneity,  wine and food with the art.

MONA is making museum history in that a visitors tour last for an average of 6 times longer than other galleries. The average calculated gaze in big galleries, MOMA and Tate included, is around 32 seconds per work – in an 100 museum wide American study people last 20 minutes in a gallery. This has a festival feel, people come for the day, two days even.

So, how do I feed this gallery-crush into my work and my thoughts on art and marginalised groups?  I was having good think as I leafed through the book I bought in the shop on the sunny lawn. My interest in David Walsh grew, always a collector, a little bit ‘aspie’ the nerdy guy – has a lot of great things to say about art.

“I definitely feel that art plays a crucial role in society. Art is a critic and a crusader. It is a social conscience and a social barometer…Art is an extremely efficient communicator of ideas because it utilises all of the tools which the non-conscious mind can engage the outside world – mood and emotion, feeling and thought” 

This is something I am feeling more and more, that art is the place for difficult discussions and topics to be explored. Art as a communicator of ideas. The complexities of incarceration, isolation and outsider ideas can be expressed so efficiently through the arts, in my opinion.

Some of the reasoning behind the design of the space detailed in the book explains that it is designed to ‘transport people’ – literally, it adapts elements from ritual spaces and practices because Walsh wanted his art to inspire and transform. He wanted to create a space where people were receptive to challenge and change. Now we’re talking! Not just a transfer of information, but exuberant art in a temple-like precinct and approach, ‘capturing and recreating radical carnival traditions’. Cultural experience as a transformative experience is very much in line with Stretch and my own ethos – and making things FUN makes the change, the learning, the journey much easier.


Musing on all this I came up with an idea. Continuing my theme of ‘Tips for Michael Gove’ I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea to turn Pentonville into a massive art museum?’ A global attraction, a permanent home for outside art. Giving back to a community – a place where transformation and change can take place. A place to change the status of outside art and do something for the people of the UK – all the people of the UK – rather than selling it off as real estate. The lofty wings would make an exciting and dramatic back drop to exciting and dramatic art from marginalised communities. Art that can be taken seriously in a city centre multi-million pound facility. Art that challenges and arrests and asks questions and is difficult and fun all at the same time. It would be perfect. Do you think he will go for it?


A proper welcome from Victoria Corrections, finally!

What a great day yesterday was, I was exhausted at the end an collapsed into a deep satisfied sleep. I had not managed to arrange any prison visits in Melbourne or Victoria in the run up to my trip and was feeling a bit ignored and frustrated. I met up with some interesting people, but was not getting to the heart of the matter. Each state has its own strict rules about access to the correctional facilities. ACT had been relatively easy as a small and forward thinking state, but the mighty Victoria was another matter. My emails had bounced around from desk to desk to department – finally someone said yes! My request had landed on a senior project manager from the education department at the government department of justice. She arranged a full day visiting two really interesting prisons and talking to staff. I arrived at the Justice Department at 8.45 am as instructed and felt immediately under dressed and casual, it was shiny glass government tower block full of suits and officials. They were very welcoming however and we went down to the 5th level of the carpark (really) to pick up a government car for our trip. Driving us was an prison education manager, a bright spark called David who had been seconded to the government department and wore a sharp suit and shades – felt a bit like Men in Black. They could not have been more interested in my work and we talked non stop about prison education, my time in Canberra, UK experiences and my work.

The first place we visited was a women’s prison called the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC), built about 12 years ago housing about 420 women of mixed security. We were shown around by the Rehabilitation Manager who was a driven personality and bubbled over with enthusiasm for what works in the prison. The more prisons I visit and the more I mix with criminal justice departments and prison staff I realise how personality driven it really is. Perhaps this is the case in all professions? A good prison regime is down to a great Director or Governor – committed and intelligent staff who pioneer stuff with the right attitude make all the difference. PDFC was busy place, the women have to do 30 hours a week of  education or work. Industries are laundry, nurseries and horticulture, cooking and kitchens and packing and mending Quantas head phones. The education was almost entirely delivered digitally – four or five computer rooms for different subjects – very impressive. The women worked their way through the facility on good behaviour which was rewarded by work and living privileges – I really believed Scott when he told us his ‘primary job is to prepare the women to go home’ – low level and open, it what is known as a ‘campus prison’ – some cell blocks, some cottages, education block, health block, work units, gardens – Micheal Gove take note.

Australia is a new place, yes there are ‘old’ prisons but nothing like our victorian hell holes – I know I am being spoilt and shown the best ones, the ones they want to show off – and I am impressed. Deborah, the government official, is over seeing a massive change in the education provision for Victorian facilities. Like in the UK it is contracted out and she has just awarded the contract to a new provider who have never worked in prisons before. She really gets digital story telling and is quizzing me about its uses and my iPad project – I feel like she’s about to offer me job!

Our next port of call is a male facility called Marngoneet, the name is taken from the local Wathaurong community and means ‘to make new’ – now there’s an idea, new prisons, new inspirational names (Michael Gove take note 2). This is a therapeutic community prison, people get referred here as part of their sentence – the different ‘neighbourhoods’ treat different mental health issues; addiction, violence, parenting and work skills, sex crimes and psychological problems. each neighbour hood a discreet community – a ‘spine though the middle of the campus divides the protected prisoners from the general pollution and house shares facilities like education and health. Its a brilliant design once again, it appears to work.



Of course all the places have their problems, volume of prisoners being one – all the prisons I have seen are throwing up new blocks and have doubled capacity which is going to change the feel. Never mind ‘superprisons,’ I would advice that no more than 500 people should be on one site, but thats probably impossible and expensive with prison numbers as they are.


Victoria is a ‘no smoking state’- its great for me as I hate the fact that I smoke occasionally I would rather the temptation was removed entirely – its amazing, they brought in smoke free prisons in July 2015. They preceded the ban with 12 months of ‘stop smoking programmes’ and each prisoner is entitled to 12 weeks of patches on arrival. Of course this has just created a new currency in the prisons and tobacco is now contraband at a high premium. There were riots in one of the remand prisons apparently sparked by the rule, fires, it is being rebuilt – I can imagine that happening in the UK, but now everyone is just about okay with it. Prisoners, as inventive as ever, have found a way to turn the nicotine patches into tobacco by soaking tea leaves in the patches and then drying it out “Tea-bacco” is now a lucrative business. One teacher at Marngoneet was telling me about a break in at the prison to a store where all sorts of contraband was kept, stanley knives, treats, and all that was taken were the nicotine patches.

The prison was making great use of a computer network supplied by Prison PC, more about them later, it is a prison that is small enough to try things and be responsive. they were doing some amazing things with computer aided design. I have plans for a project I want to take to the Ministry of Justice, about prisoners designing their own prisons – I liked it a lot.


Another subject I have been avoiding…

I have been attempting to order my thoughts about the interactions with Indigenous Australians since I have been here. It is such a vast and complex subject I am struggling to make sense of it and then write about it without sounding stupid. I came here without realising – no without even thinking about – the constant presence of the Indigenous Australians and the very visible discussions, apologies, notices and admissions to the first residents on this massive island. I have worked with them in the prisons, the teachers and indigenous liaison officers, I have been to amazing art gallery exhibitions and museum exhibits about their story. I have been impressed and entranced by their art and culture. I have been troubled by the incongruous nature of the settlers life style, saddened by the statistics and the horrors of the past, while also obviously enjoying the urban delights of Melbourne.

In the prison in Canberra indigenous Australians made up about 40% of the population which is very low – this goes up to as high as 90% in some places in Northern and Western Australia.  With the national emphasis on tolerance and apology – there has to be a lot of provision for the Indigenous Australians – to respect their culture and traditions (the term Aborigine went out of fashion in the late 80’s although they still identify themselves as Aborigine).

Each area has their own native tribe, and there are literally hundreds of tribes. There are 120 living languages across Australia, each tribe with distinct customs, artworks, culture and practices. This is hard for Australian citizens to navigate through and even harder for my little mind to comprehend – I was very moved in the prison by the Indigenous Art room. This a place they can come and chat and hang out away from the general population – this is normal provision. They had a wonderful table that got repainted in section as new people came and went, a continuously evolving rainbow serpent. They made didgeridoos and message sticks. Apparently in bigger prisons they have spaces for ceremonies and intrenched cultural provision.  They had recently had an interesting project for ‘NAIDOC’ week, there are festivals and projects and inclusive activities. One of the lads I did story telling is a 32 year old ‘Aborigine male’ – typically, in and out of prison all his life from ‘juve’  centres to adult prison, he drank and took drugs and got into petty street crime again and again. You’ll be able to hear his story soon. He is an artist and I bought one of his paintings, I support prisoner art at home and thought it would be a great souvenir – turns out it is quite common for them to sell their artworks. It is a female crocodile protecting her three eggs from hunters – quite apt as I have three children.

The traditional Indigenous Australians interaction with the land is so different to our own. They find it hard to deal with the western ‘luxuries’ of alcohol and drugs. They traditionally find it hard to comply with our timetables and routines – and why should they – they were here first! And of course there is anger and resentment, why should they be in a white mans prison for breaking white mans rules?


Talking to a good friend who lectures in art a Melbourne University the issues became even more complicated. Now seemingly ‘white’ people identify as Aboriginal even if  they are one sixteenth or less, but aligning themselves with that culture. This is is of course open to all sorts of pitfalls and problems. Indigenous Australians can be given special dispensation for ‘walkabout’ or ‘grieving ceremonies’ which might mean they do not hand in their assignments or attend class. The teacher is not allowed to ask or question identification. In the prison I interviewed one of the ‘Indigenous Australian’ prisoners and he did not look or seem how I expected. In some ways it may seem like a fabulous culture to identify with, so earthy and mystical – one of the oldest cultures in the world. A history of painting and walking and storytelling and song. A culture where time has little meaning, where the moon, fire, water and the earth are the rulers. I think I might like to identify as part of that if I had the opportunity.


Tackling one of the subjects…

I think I’ve had writers block. Or perhaps still got it. The problem is there is so much swimming around my head I am having difficulty processing it in blog-sized chunks. I think I need to have a go. What with the events in Paris and around the world, I am kind of thinking, ‘my work is meaningless and who really cares?’  But I need to press on!

I came away officially looking at ‘Technology for well being in prisons’, which I have been doing – more of a  ‘techy’ blog to follow, after my meeting with ‘Prison PC’ -but I am at heart an artist, and my instinct is to look at creativity and the arts in prison education. In fact more than that, my real interest is in humanity and empathy, getting under the skin of the prisoners and the staff alike, seeing what’s working and what isn’t. While I am happy to chat about the creative software and the apps we are using in Stretch Digital, they are just tools to capture what I am really interested in. That is the story, the life experience, the moments of change – whether that be through art or film or even mathematics, IT or gardening – I like to see people on a journey, and expressing that journey.

It was interesting to be working in the Education Department. Like in the UK prisons the education is contracted out to another provider, and like in the UK there are rifts and tensions galore within the department. The arts are being sidelined for basic skills, its always a numbers game, seeking funding for programmes that have to have tangible results and hard outcomes. I went out to eat with the art teacher one evening, she was very interested in the prison art scene in the UK – there is nothing like that in Australia, all the visiting charities, theatre groups, sewing, painting and writing. She was looking for ideas and tips to make arts more appealing to her funders and the department. Anyone who has spent any time in a prison knows that the art room is really where the magic happens. How much proof do people need? In fact using the arts to engage people in the first place and then teaching basic skills through art programmes is often a much more successful model than making people attend basic literacy and maths classes.

Prison teachers are a special kind of person. People who choose to teach in prisons have to have some altruistic spirit, as it is tough and frustrating and often unrewarding. Prison art teachers are a specialist breed even amongst this group, I know of prison art teachers that have changed peoples lives with their dedication and compassion. I could not work in a prison everyday, I think I would find it too hard mentally – but perhaps they have to form a protective shell.


The bickering that goes on any department always reminds me what a glorious luxury it is to be my own boss. Not having to justify what I am teaching and my methods to anyone, being able to carry out my project plans just as I imagine them. Obviously it has drawbacks – like not being supported by a team – but in prison education I see a lot of unsupportive teams and dysfunctional departments. I felt instantly at home in the staff room, these were my people, my types of people. They were really keen to work with me – I had sent lessons plans that detailed all these great outcomes from the work – the communication skills and basic skills were flagged up by the manager and the artists outcomes buy the art teacher. Luckily I was on the whole oblivious to the tensions around who exactly would benefit from my presence – there wasn’t time to do everything and build the trust in the detainees I would have liked. But I was busy and did the best the I could. I am fairly sure this was the first ever digital story telling project in an Australian Prison. Not sure the staff or the prisoners know what to make of me, is she a teacher? an artist? a therapist? a weirdo? all of those things…

I feel like I am breaking down barriers and pioneering something. It feels good.


An arty blog: thinking about digital portraits

FullSizeRender 2Yesterday I had a day off from the prison, a time to see some sites and do some processing and editing work. Being my day off the heavens duly opened and I spent the day sheltering from thunderstorms in various galleries and hotels. The National Gallery is enormous and the collection of indigenous art works was truly stunning. I am really learning to love the imagery and story telling behind the work. They often have  amazing earthy titles like ‘Moon Dreaming’ or ‘Hunters with river’ – all elemental, all in IMG_3390browns and ochres and colours of the earth and land. Its a fascinating culture and story, it really is – of course the indigenous artists are now making striking contemporary work that addresses their history and treatment at the hands of the settlers. In an earlier blog I was looking for this discussion, I wanted this to be addressed, to unnerve me and educate me – of course the discussion is in the art gallery! I should have known. Art is a place where these things can be explored safely.


Half the gallery was closed due to major renovations unfortunately – this is another thing that seems to follow me around major visitor attractions as well as the thunder storms – but across the way was the marvellous National Portrait Gallery. I love the NPG in London and this one did not disappoint. Most interesting was a whole exhibition of ‘Digital Portraits’ – there had been a national competition   IMG_3399     to ‘support the growth of the moving image portraiture’ – it stated ” Digital portraiture is an evolving artistic category. It is distinct from documentary film and performance captured on camera. Each artwork conveys a compelling sense of identity. Here are expressions of inner life that evoke strong feeling – often echoed by a landscape or situation that mirrors the individuals state of mind.”


The works were all short films of 2 – 5 minutes, some with sound or music, bits of animation, some just slightly moving, really interesting and got me thinking about the connection with my digital stories. In the permanent collection of the Australian NPG is a digital film portrait of Cate Blanchett, 9 minutes long, her speaking, dancing, close ups of her hands and her moving around the space. Very beguiling. I am thinking this is what I want to do, digital portraiture as art work – is this a thing? if it IS a thing it may just be MY thing? I am very excited and inspired.



Doing ‘my thing’ – and the universal nature of prisoners…

DSC00693A colleague of mine said yesterday, ‘I didn’t realise you were actually delivering a project out there?’ – it did only come about in the last few weeks of planning, when the prison management saw some example stories and perhaps thought they might be a nice outcome from my visit. The education team were super keen on me working with a couple of groups and I rather ambitiously said this would be possible. I had come to the facility to look at technology for well being, which I did, I heard a lot bout systems, I asked a lot of questions, I observed use and methods and I chatted to detainees about their needs – but I was really keen to do what I do best, and get on with  some story telling.DSC_0096

With the guys we worked in the art room and started with a group of five, it was unfortunate that they didn’t really know what it was all about so I was always on the back foot – the guys were the same as guys anywhere. Some were high, some were depressed and reticent, some were chatty and needy and some disinterested. We struggled to be honest – to maintain interest. There is a laconic attitude in the prison, that they do not have to anything if they do not want to, it seems to me far to easy to check out of any activity.DSC_0024

The women were amazing, in contrast to the men, they almost gave me too much. They talked and shared and brought me pictures and objects. I was conflicted with all the stories – I am having trouble processing and editing – a couple of the ladies talked a lot about their crime. Which I am usually quite strict to discourage but I felt so privileged to be talked to I let them speak. There’s always a couple of people in the groups who get right under my skin. I carry their stories around with me, I worry about them as I drive home and as I go to bed at night. One girl in particular, said she hadn’t told the story in that way to anyone, she was mentally ill when her crime was committed, a sad story. I felt she opened up to me. That night I awoke in a sweat having nightmares about mental hospitals and children being taken away. I had been editing her story – her voice in my head all evening.

DSC00658The wonderful man who has been looking after me in the prison enquired what I did to protect myself – psychologically – and the truth is very little. He told me his staff have clinal supervision and I should be careful. It’s true, I like the fact that people tell me things, I am an impartial outsider, but it’s no good being saddled with everyone’s baggage.

I think the creation of the story helps me, once the story and film is created it easier for me to distance myself and see it objectively.

It soon became clear in the editing and draft edits that I would have to be
DSC_0096much more careful about these stories. I am very keen that the prison is able to use them and I have a lasting legacy there – the film editing about the mentally ill detainee was totally wrong, too much detail about her crime and she hadn’t been sentenced yet. What’s more Canberra is astonishing small. Half the population of York! Only 360,000 – so people will know the people, know their victims, recognise voices and stories. In the UK it is easier for my stories to become anonymous quickly – out there – but the tiny state of ACT watches everything the prison does as its their only prison, it is under scrutiny form press and the government and civilians all the time. I have left the prison now, and am in the editing process, looking forward to giving it some care…


A ‘Human Rights Prison’ : MOVING FORWARD

FullSizeRender 3I have a huge, silly, automatic hire car, when I hired it I asked for something quite small but the man said where I was going was bush and I would need a big thing – seems the biggest worry is running over a Kangaroo, I saw a dead one as road kill and indeed, as I approached the prison I could see weird flashes of brown which I realised were jumping ‘roos. I am a long way from home.

I am always nervous starting at a new prison with a new group – its always an unknown – I was early and sat in the carpark looking at the prison. It is new and clean. I stride up to security – I have a bag full of contraband, cameras, recorders, laptops – but its all fine, they have a list, they are expecting me. My contact Mark Bartlett comes to meet me. Head of resettlement and rehabilitation programmes, he spends the whole day with me and shows me every corner of the prison. Unknown-1There is so much to say and to take in – on the whole – a similar feel to the best prisons I have worked in, ones in Norway, good clean private prisons in the UK – new and built fit for purpose. I have to agree with Michael Gove ( never thought I would) when he says that the Victorian Prisons should be torn down – rehabilitation needs to be  DESIGNED IN to the very fabric of the building.

This is ACT’s (Australian Capitol Territory) only prison. The state is tiny. All the prisoners used to be farmed out to other neighbouring states. There the prisons are more what you would expect, big, violent and busy with 1000 inmates. When ACT decided to finally build its own prison it has attempted to achieve something quite special. It has been built on the ground of being a ‘human rights friendly’ facility. Unknown

The Alexander Maconochie Centre emphasises rehabilitation, compliance with human rights principles and adherance to the Healthy Prison Concept.

According to the website, a healthy prison is one in which everyone:

  • is and feels safe
  • is treated with respect and as a fellow human being
  • is encouraged to improve him/herself and is given every opportunity to do so through the provision of purposeful activity
  • is enabled to maintain contact with their families and is prepared for release.

In reality, somethings work and somethings don’t, like anywhere I suppose. On the whole there is a sense of calm in the prison that I have only encountered in the Norwegian system. Prisoners can wonder fairly freely around, the education, health and programmes blocks are all separate little units. There is an onsite TC (Therapeutic Community) for people committed to recovery. I am working within the education and art department, as I always do. The staff have been amazing and helpful and they are putting me to good work, a mens group, a womens group – and today I will be working in the indiginous art room. The prisoners are the same as prisoners anywhere. There are lots of drugs and lots of problems. The vision was a great one, the practicalities more challenging. Built for 300 they were peaking at 412 with another block for 150 opening soon. Popular place. There is good prison art going on, I was moved as I always am by the work – I am excited to get under the skin of the place over the next week. I want to leave you with this art work that moved me :

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Moving Forward: The Kangaroo and Emu can’t walk backwards. Like hope, forgiveness, restoration and freedom its about going forward. 


Lots to think about

IMG_3309with Barbie sculpture on beach

My time in Sydney is drawing to a close. I am looking forward to starting work in the prison next week and getting stuck in, the last few days have been about acclimatising, learning a bit about Australian life and people. I am essentially a people – person though and Im getting bit lonely wondering around on my own! I have been thinking hard about Australians and crime and criminals. Such a complex case. The first settlers banished criminals and now living under a right wing government with many social problems of its own. I have looked at interesting sculptures and walked down Bondi beach with the sand in-between my toes – I have looked out to sea and wondered what I am doing here?

Sculpture watching me
Sydney View

I was looking for something related to outsider art or prison art or a community arts project that I could attend – where I am staying near the harbour could be almost any capital city, global city in the world, smart restaurants, shiny towers, people from all around the world (except Africa it seems) – Today I walked for miles as I wanted to get out of the luxury zone, I walked though the red light district, saw homeless people and a bit of dirt, all standard city stuff.


There did not appear to be a community art presence, an outsider art presence, but I have not had time to look properly. I thought fondly of the Koestler exhibition, of the brilliant exhibitions such as Art as Opportunity I have been involved in, and felt lucky.  What I did find is a Museum of Justice and Police. Now my background and education is totally museum centric so I had high hopes. Firstly I had to pay in, which I am not used to for a national museum. It was a disappointment. I had expected too much – I wanted an intellectual debate on Australia’s ‘position’ on crime and justice. I wanted it to bring the debate right into the present day, to the death of the Bali 9 drug dealers for example, to their relationship with their past story. Instead it was a glamorisation of 1920’s gangsters and criminals. Thats possibly what I am going to have to – or part of my journey or mission.


Having said that, I loved looking deep into the eyes of the mugshots of the past criminals. They have an amazing collection of negatives of mug shots and crime scenes that painted a picture straight out of an old movie. On the whole though, a wasted opportunity to make some statements about the Australian connection to crime and justice – made me realise how brilliant museums and galleries in the UK are. They are brave. Big displays of prisoner art at Southbank, relevant debate in museums and galleries, and all for free!