From prison art to lockdown art to…

From prison art to lockdown art to…

Author and artist Ruinbow writes for Good Vibrations about how he got into art while in prison, his experience of being an art mentor, and his drive to make art accessible for all.

 

I did not take to art easily, I found it really boring and a bit pretentious. I thought most of it was just crap. I did not like the tutor in prison. She just wanted me to do colour wheels and draw pictures of apples, none of which interested me.

I was sitting in my cell one evening and my cellmate was watching something on TV. I was flicking through a magazine and I thought, “I could draw that,” I picked up a pencil and started drawing on some scrap paper. I was really happy with the results at the time.

On reflection, the artwork is not that good but it is the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that drove me forward.
I kept questioning my ability at every stage with the desire to become better. I focused mainly on portraits and people approached me on the wing to draw for them in return for chocolate and shower gels (prison currency).

I became an art mentor in prison, working under the tutor that I didn’t take to, after being a maths and English mentor for education. I had already established myself as a trusted prisoner (not an oxymoron) within this role. The art tutor liked my work and knew that I could guide other people in the right direction. My favourite type of person was those who said they could not draw or do art. I just had to help them become confident with drawing. I never did any demonstrations for them but I gave them advice. I told them, you are just worried that what you draw does not look good or right, but when you were a kid, you probably didn’t even think about ability. You just drew!

I taught them to draw a circle using just words. I gave them a piece of paper, pencil and rubber. I said, “draw a circle” and they started to draw, some took their time and had a shaky line and some created an egg shaped blob. I asked them, “is that a circle?” and they replied “no”, so I gave them the option to correct it and every time they would rub out what they had drawn and tried again. I told them not to do that, never ever to do that. I explained what they have on the paper is not far off from being a circle and if they keep rubbing it out and starting again, they will keep on making the same mistakes. I told them to use what they have done as a guide and to imagine a clock 12, 3, 6, and 9. So split the circle into quarters. Ask yourself questions. What is wrong with that part of the circle? How can I make it better? I instructed them to draw a correct line over the wrong line (or a better line) and only when the better line is down on the paper, then and only then can you rub out the wrong line. I sort of became like a driving instructor, I just told them what to do and they were really happy with their results

They kept asking to see my work and they wanted me to draw for them as well so this gave me a regular source of income (the chocolate and shower gels). Being the art mentor also gave me a status of being the guy to go to for drawings. At first, I was charging £3 for an A4 piece and £5 for an A3 piece but as I became more popular I started to charge £25 for anything. I read loads of books on technique and I learned about a lot of artists in prison.

 

One day I noticed Koestler Awards advertised in the prison and I decided to enter. The drawing below won a First Time Entrant Award, Bronze Award, Highly Commended and this year my artwork was selected for exhibition.

 

 

 

The money that I received from Koestler I have invested in art materials.

I have recently been diagnosed with autism and there are several traits that support my passion for art. I have good attention to detail and I became obsessed with art, just wanting to know everything about everything.

Recently, I have been working on an idea that came to me from the pandemic. I noticed rainbows everywhere and this became a symbol of gratitude and hope. I thought because this was plastered everywhere on TV, in people’s houses and in shops, people will just associate these colours and the rainbow with the pandemic in the future, therefore they will be ruined.

I watched a documentary a couple of months ago about Banksy and I have seen how he works and creates his images. I started to do the same but appropriated the images with rainbows. I call these ruinbows. Before watching the documentary, I had the idea but the style was more of a multicoloured line drawing, starting with the lightest colour, and working to a darker colour building it up to a more accurate representation.

As I have recently left prison I am homeless myself, but I do have a roof over my head so I am in a better position than those sleeping rough. That is why I have decided to give away signed prints of my work to homeless people, so they can display and sell the work if they want to. It annoys me when people just walk past the homeless like their lives are so much more important than the insignificant people in shop doorways.

Why don’t people stop and talk to them, say hello, perhaps give them a little bit of money, and so what if they were to buy fags and booze with the money? I’m on benefits and I try to give a pound a week away to the homeless. I don’t think anyone should be homeless.

What I’m working on now

This piece didn’t take me too long to complete but it is for all of those people out there who make the excuse, “I cannot draw, I can only draw stick men” that they can still create recognisable works of art and it is what they do with those stickmen to create artwork.

 

 

 

This piece is again trying to urge those people who say they can only draw stick men to just give art a try. The fact you can only draw stick men is not a reason not to draw with them. People care too much about what they think an image is supposed to look like and because they can’t replicate that, they give up.

 

 

 

 

 

This piece took me two days to complete and it was really therapeutic. I was definitely in the moment with it and I couldn’t focus on anything else. I did not worry about any of life’s problems when creating it. This piece is not yet finished as I need to place the rainbow on it but you can see the process on how these pieces work. It took me a while to draw and create the black and white image, but I have now created stencils to make it easier to reproduce the image over and over again. There are 2 stencils that make up the image, a silhouette of the whole thing, all sprayed white. Then a flimsy little stencil to cover up the white parts and this is overlaid then sprayed black. The stencils are made out of cereal boxes as they are cheap material to work with. I want people to understand that making art does not need to be expensive.

 

 

 

I did this sketch on the way to Liverpool on the bus. Outside the window is just a road but on the sketchpad is the Mersey tunnel. I had a lot more time drawing the inside of the bus and the sketchpad with hands but in the tunnel was time limited. I had to work really quickly and decide which part of the tunnel to draw because there is a lot of turns and ups and downs in the tunnel. I got down most of the information on the first time through but completed it on the way back.

 

My artwork has definitely developed since I was released from prison in February because I now have immediate access to materials and can look at other artwork in galleries and online. I’m looking forward to seeing where my art takes me in the future.

Revolving Doors

Aims to improve the criminal justice system for people caught in the revolving door of crisis and crime. Is recruiting people with lived experience of criminal justice system to get them involved in research.

Akin, former resident of a ‘foreign national’ prison, on the importance of knowing your rights

Akin, former resident of a ‘foreign national’ prison, on the importance of knowing your rights

No. 11 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Akin spent the last two years of his criminal sentence in a ‘foreign national’ prison. He moved to the UK from Nigeria as a child and has siblings who were born in the UK. In this interview he speaks about his own experience as well as the stories of other people he met and supported while in prison, many of whom were detained for months post-sentence because they were unable to secure bail accommodation or could not afford legal representation. Interview by AVID.

Content warning: This blog includes references to self-harm.

 

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m 42, and came from Nigeria when I was a baby. I’ve been in England forever; for nursery, primary, secondary, the lot.

 

Did you expect to move to a Category D open prison for the end of your sentence?

Yes. You do a sentence plan to get to open prison and I had done everything required. At first, everyone signed off, and then, literally like the day before the board, I got a slip saying ‘you’re of interest to the Home Office’.

On the following Friday, they moved me to a ‘foreign national’ prison. So that was a shock. I didn’t even know what a ‘foreign national’ prison was.

 

How did you feel about being moved to a ‘foreign national’ prison?

I’ve never known anything apart from England. So you’re telling me I’m a foreign national? Yes, we’ve done a crime, but people who have committed the same crime as me and are born here can go to open prison, but I couldn’t go. What is the difference?

There was a lot of young people there just like me, who have been here since they were kids. A lot of them feel betrayed because they love England. They say, ‘I’m British I don’t care what you tell me.’ If you’ve been here since you were six months old, how can you say anything else?

 

How is a ‘foreign national’ prison different to another UK prison?

As soon as you go to ‘foreign national’ prison, you lose a lot of things you’re entitled to in a normal UK prison, like legal aid for your immigration case. Because now you’re of interest to the Home Office, you have to pay for everything. It’s very complicated to get a free solicitor to fight your immigration case as you have to prove ‘special circumstances’.

People get stressed and frustrated as they don’t know what is happening in their case, or why they are being held post-sentence and there’s a lot more fights.

 

What was your experience of risk assessments in a ‘foreign national’ prison?

I’ve always been low-risk but when I arrived at the ‘foreign national’ prison they told me I was high risk. Luckily, I’d done my OASys [risk assessment] before I got there and got my solicitor to send them a copy.

A lot of people who get a lesser sentence don’t spend enough time in a UK prison to lower their risk. In a ‘foreign national’ prison, they don’t necessarily get the chance to do the right courses either.

The judge is looking at your record and thinks you haven’t done any courses in prison but maybe you haven’t been able to get on one in time.

 

How did having family support and a lawyer impact on your situation?

I’ve got a lot of family around me, so if I just call them, they just deal with everything. Where, a lot of people don’t have that. And it’s unfair.

For people without family, finding a bail address is extremely difficult, meaning they could still be detained months after the end of their sentence.

I was probably one of the first in that ‘foreign national’ prison to get out on time. Because I was on point. I had my solicitors ready. In the end I only had to spend like two days extra under immigration powers, whereas most people spend five or six months. For some people it can be over a year.

Some people are still there 12 months later because they can’t get legal teams or they can’t get approved addresses and they are stranded in a ‘foreign national’ prison.

Not even like in a detention centre, where you’re allowed a mobile phone. They keep you in a prison even though you’re no longer a prisoner.

 

Can you explain a bit more about the mental health impact of being detained in prison?

Some people do want to go back, but it’s really hard for people who are from here and that’s why people start to struggle with their mental health.

I met a guy who tried to kill himself who said I’m not going to another country, ‘I’d rather die here, and my kids visit my grave than going to a country I haven’t been to since I was six months old. I don’t even have my Mum and dad there. What am I gonna do?’

A lot of these guys are cutting themselves. I know someone who swallowed a blade because he didn’t want to be deported.

Even those who have only been in the UK for 3 or 4 years. Some of them were only stealing because they can’t work and they’ve been applying for leave to remain in the UK for years. It’s crazy because you’ve done something you’re getting 4 months for like theft at Sainsbury’s, but then you’re getting deported for it. These guys, they are the ones that are trying to cut themselves. Because they’ve come from really bad places some of them.

 

What does it mean when someone knows their rights and is able to exercise their rights?

It is so, so important to know your rights. A lot of these kids are lost; they don’t even understand what they are going through. They don’t understand that they need to fight their immigration case.

Charities can help bridge the gap by helping people understand their rights.

At the end of the day someone in detention isn’t a solicitor and they might end up signing papers they don’t understand.

 

What is life like for people who have been granted immigration bail but are still fighting their case?

Originally they said I couldn’t work when I came out. I’ve got a daughter to feed. My solicitor appealed it and we got a letter back saying he’s entitled to claim benefits, but he’s not entitled to work.

You feel like you’re sitting at home doing nothing when you could be helping. I began volunteering because it was something to do, and I can still be helping people.

Some people are just thrown out there with nothing. What do you expect these kids to do? You’re just literally getting them ready to lose, to go through the whole cycle again. And some of them have actually done courses to help themselves to gain something when they come home, but they can’t use the qualification anyway because they can’t work. So, what is the point?

 

What changes would you like to see?

The number one change is that they need more legal aid and representation for people’s immigration cases.

And then more courses so you can reduce your risk. Then letting people work when they are released.

I want to work. I’ve done enough time and done enough courses to turn my life around. I could walk into most places and get a job now.

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Bruce Houlder, CB QC, on his work fighting knife crime in London

Bruce Houlder, CB QC, on his work fighting knife crime in London

No. 10 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Bruce Houlder, CB QC and Founder of Fighting Knife Crime London

 

It is Everyone’s Responsibility to help a Lost Generation of Young People

 

I have practised criminal law in Greater London and the South-East in a working life spanning 51 years, as a barrister, QC, and judge.  I have witnessed at first hand the stories of those whose young lives have been damaged, mostly through no fault of their own. The consequence too often is that they went on themselves to damage the lives of others.

We all know the pattern. There has always been something missing and often profoundly sad about the way these young lives, once full of hope, end by being cruelly degraded by circumstances beyond their control. It might be through a failure of family support, environmental conditions, poor educational opportunity, poverty of mind and spirit, often exacerbated by domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, and even sexual abuse.

Some stories are quite beyond our imagination, and they demand some positive action from every one of us.

My professional career, at one time or other, has led me to be the defender of such disadvantaged young people, their prosecutor, and to be their sentencer once convicted. The criminal justice system sits at the end of the line. It steps in only when others have failed. It is rarely an answer, or even capable of producing one, although sometimes we are too ready to speak of the failure of the criminal justice system.

The failures elsewhere are more likely candidates for attention.

Custodial institutions, especially for the young, and despite the best efforts of those that work within them, can claw them deeper into trouble. They often damage young lives further by being unable to offer rehabilitative and life improving solutions to correct the damage already done. Creative alternatives to prison are famously starved of resources, and press comment on new sentencing approaches are too often populist in approach, uninformed, and lacking in nuance.

Young offenders are seen as irredeemable problems, rather than lives that have been failed by others, and in need of restoration.

It is a massive indictment of government imagination, over all recent administrations, and poor investment decisions. Governments have failed to remember that their duty and responsibility is to improve the lives of the next generation, and to protect young children and all young people from avoidable harms, and they fail to act sufficiently on informed reports even from their own departments.

Many, and I include myself, have become tired of the shallow camouflage of political excuse making. This lack of faith in our political institutions is far from healthy. So, we must also support those good men and women that are genuinely trying to bring about change, and to expose those who hide behind poor excuses.

The only thing that matters is the way we live, our active humanity, and how much we decide to improve the lives of all those around us.

It was with this in mind, and at the age of 73 (it is never too late) that I started a new online project Fighting Knife Crime London designed to bring together all organisations in a collaborative online space, who were already working to improve the lives of our young in Greater London.

It is a multi-facetted website. It is a news area and directory to promote innovative change, a magazine, and a resource for communication and collaboration. We use film and video, and the power of social media to raise awareness, and to help the young, their families and friends find solutions. Our directory of organisations too is highly accessible and links directly to the solutions that you might need to know about.

We also include a database of reports, studies and statistics for those who wish to understand the problem at a deeper level. Reading many of these may well leave you asking why so little has actually been implemented effectively. The website is a resource for those who need help and for those who want to help, but don’t know how.

Please spread the word. Lives can be changed simply by a single act of kindness and compassion.

Our news area is a free resource where you can share thoughtful solutions, and advertise upcoming events or programmes (so long as these are relevant to the stated aims of Fighting Knife Crime London).

If you do one thing today after looking at this website, ask yourself what you can do to help – or write to someone else to encourage them to do something too. You will be amazed how change happens sometimes through a single word.

So, create these ‘Good Vibrations’. Act positively and with clarity in finding a solution, however small. The vibrations will spread I can assure you.

I have served on too many committees and attended too many seminars in my time in the law, discussing legal and process reforms. I have heard accounts of the capacity of humans to abuse or damage others, which might make your hair stand on end. These might be in the sanitised atmosphere of a courtroom, or in the privacy of a prison cell, or through the testimony of witnesses, and victims, and sometimes the falsely accused. Sometimes immersion in such process can lead to a sense of detachment from the realities that they are designed to meet. Victims of crime have needs which we have to address, but so many may never have become victims at all had we concentrated more fully on our children’s early years, and invested in their future.

Could we all just stop for a moment to truly see the world we have created for our young people?

We have excluded whole swathes of our young people from a real pathway to hope, denied them places to go, failed to train those who could have helped them, closed the places where they want to be, and failed to build real state of the art centres to inspire. These could be places to make music, to sing, to perform, to play sport, to laugh and to love. Places where young people want to be, to find help, to restore their mental health, to find friendship and the self-confidence that our next generation are going to need.

I have presented a bleak picture, because the problem is so serious. But building this website has given me hope.

Those I have spoken to have, in some cases, spent much of their lives trying to promote change through positive action. Our website is full of examples.

The selfless collaboration of like-minded citizens has changed many lives through the work they do with young people in communities all over London. They understand that it is the task of every one of us to bring about this change, and if we do, then politicians will respond to that noise, provided it is sustained and loud enough to hear.

Who are these people? They are the employers who come together to offer training and employment to disadvantaged or excluded young; the workers and leaders in local government who truly care; the young men and women who work with the fearful young, or with young gang members; the mentors who work one-to-one with those that need help; those that give their time each week to raise the lives of others to a better future. Theirs is the community of talents that should make us all proud.

If every one of us does our bit, together we can make change.

So, find an organisation where you can offer your talents, even if it is just a listening ear. You may be surprised what that can lead to. Many of you do this already, but if not, please give some time to it. You will, I promise, be surprised how much your own life might be changed as well.

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

HACRO

Helps people who have been on the wrong side of the law to turn their lives around. We do this by delivering family support and ex-offender employment programmes – both proven to reduce re-offending.

The Hardman Trust

Supports prisoners who are planning for their future beyond prison. The Trust encourages men and women to achieve self-set personal goals and feel empowered to take control of their lives.

Changing Lives

Supports with people who are in crisis or who need support to overcome serious challenges that can limit their opportunities. Works with people experiencing homelessness, drug or alcohol misuse, and unemployment.

Turning Point

Provides health and social care services. Works with people who need support with drug and alcohol use, mental health, offending behaviour, unemployment issues and people with a learning disability. England only.