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An article in the latest Public Service Review (Home Affairs) about Good Vibrations and the case for arts in prisons generally:

Professor David Wilson and Laura Caulfield, of Birmingham City University’s Centre for Applied Criminology, highlight the arts-based project helping to rehabilitate offenders

In recent times the existence and role of the arts in criminal justice has received more attention than ever before. On the one hand, a small trickle of academic research reports have been published that document how arts-based programmes can have a significant positive effect on offenders; on the other hand, some media attention focused on certain arts in prisons projects suggested they were unsuitable for offenders serving prison sentences. The emerging evidence base – reports from prisoners, staff, and those involved in arts-based programmes for offenders – challenges this negative suggestion. We are the authors behind one report in this small trickle of evidence, and have witnessed first-hand the positive impact one project in particular has on offenders.

Good Vibrations is a charity that runs music projects with offenders in prison, and more recently, to offenders on probation. Good Vibrations uses gamelan percussion music from Indonesia, and provides intensive, usually week-long courses, for groups of around 15 to 20 prisoners. They are available to any prisoner (or, in some prisons, to targeted groups, eg. the unemployed, the very low-skilled, people in touch with mental health teams, self-harmers), do not require any musical training prior to participation, and for many prisoners will be their first experience of education in the prison setting. As well as learning how to play traditional pieces of gamelan music, participants create their own compositions as a group. They also learn about Indonesian culture and associated art forms (eg. shadow puppetry, Javanese dance). At the end of the week, prisoners perform a concert to which staff, peers, family members and others are invited.

The first stage of our research assessed the medium-term effects of taking part in Good Vibrations projects. Adult male prisoners who had participated in Good Vibrations projects were interviewed six to nine months after the projects’ completion, and prison staff were questioned about their observations of the prisoners during that time. Participants were assessed for any possible changes in emotions and behaviour, based on an emotional scale developed by the research team. The key findings from this research suggest that six months after completing a Good Vibrations project, participants experienced:
• Greater levels of engagement and an increased openness to wider learning;
• Improved listening and communication skills;
• Improved social skills and increased social interaction;
• Improved relationships with prison staff; and
• Decreased levels of self-reported anger and a greater sense of calmness.

Participants spoke of the importance of developing skills beyond that of learning to play instruments, namely, listening and communication skills, which, with hindsight, many reported they never really had before. They also cited learning to work in a group and being aware of others’ needs as important. Participants also reported a positive impact in a wider sense on their relationship with their families, through telling them about the Good Vibrations project and subsequently demonstrating their achievements through the concert and receiving a CD of the final performance. Seeing this reassured families about the behavioural changes their imprisoned relative was going through and some reported that this brought them closer together.

All participants expressed a great degree of pride and sense of achievement at having completed the course, and in particular, having had the courage to take part in the concert in front of inmates and staff on the final day. In the past many participants had started other courses or programmes that for various reasons they had not completed. Completion and presenting their skills gave participants ‘a sense of achievement and wellbeing’. As a result of this, six months after completing the project participants stated they were more confident to learn other things and more open to the idea of developing other skills. The concert was cited as a pivotal point, in that participants were nervous but felt it was important to be taken ‘out of their comfort zone’. For some, this sense of empowerment had encouraged them to consider other courses and they had begun to be proactive at learning other skills.

This was clearly demonstrated by one participant who contacted the county library to get more information on Indonesian culture, whilst another gave up smoking in order to save up for a guitar. Others had taken part in and made active moves towards educational courses offered within the prison.

Participants compared the project to a range of other courses, both educational and arts-based. Some reported they felt other courses were inflexible and didn’t allow participants to have a voice and express their opinions. The personal gains from Good Vibrations were cited as being as important as learning practical skills or educational attainment, but also served to highlight that learning had taken place in a highly enjoyable and rewarding way. This enjoyment, combined with the sense of achievement, encouraged the moves towards further learning, training and education mentioned above. One participant succinctly described the Good Vibrations project as ‘a stepping stone to other education’. Indeed, of those participants who previously were not involved in other forms of education, the majority have since gone on to engage in some form of further learning.

“The project has definitely made me more confident in the way I deal with people…and even in my own ability,” said one participant of the Good Vibrations Gamelan in Prisons Project in June last year. “I’ve been more open to learning other things, because I am capable of learning.”

In short, the results of our evaluation suggested that participating in a Good Vibrations project has a sustained and positive emotional and psychological impact on participants, leading to positive behavioural change. This suggests that expanded support for innovative projects like Good Vibrations would have significant benefits for prisons and the prison system as a whole.

We are currently conducting further research on the Good Vibrations project, following prisoners as they move through the prison system and out into the community, and also assessing the impact of the project on women in prison. We are pleased to report that early results from our second stage evaluation of Good Vibrations suggest two important findings: that for some individuals the positive impact of the project is sustained long term; and that for women in prison the project has a significant positive impact upon their mental wellbeing.

Traditional programmes in prison are targeted at reducing reoffending – and rightly so. However, the view has typically been something of a ‘one size fits all approach’ and evidence shows that traditional programmes have little effect on many offenders. Often, for example, prisoners with low literacy levels can be reluctant to engage with the ‘basic skills’ programmes offered in prisons. These kinds of formalised educational courses can, for many, seem like a replica of what turned them off education in the first place.

This is where projects like Good Vibrations are different, providing an unintimidating introduction to learning and achievement. Poor educational background is statistically associated with an increased risk of reoffending; therefore, it is important to assess how far projects may act as a stepping stone to further education, and thus impact upon prisoners’ level of need and risk of reoffending. Indeed, the need for evidence-based practice cannot be disputed; evidence-based practice ensures that service users receive appropriate, high quality inputs that are suited to their needs.

Research such as that discussed provides the Prison Service with a greater evidence base upon which to make decisions around which arts-based projects are likely to be successful with offenders and has the added benefit of providing the arts community with clear information on good practice within their programmes.