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Sarah Hartley, Operational Lead for Creative Arts and Enrichment at Novus, on the arts, self-development and rehabilitation

No. 4 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Sarah Hartley, Operational Lead for Creative Arts and Enrichment at Novus. Novus delivers education, rehabilitation support and opportunity to 60,000 adults and young people in custody and in the community across England and Wales.


Creative arts’ place in a rehabilitative culture

My passion for the arts is at the core of who I am. Through my own challenges within education (I am dyslexic), it has always been the creative subjects that I have felt connected with, to a point where any further study I took on beyond school was all art based.

I pursued a path I enjoyed, and these experiences and opportunities are what shaped the direction of my career. I believe that my own connection with art, and knowing the empowerment it gave me, has meant that I have gravitated, either consciously or subconsciously, to work with ‘disconnected’ groups in society – people with mental health and complex needs, elderly people and those in the criminal justice system.

As a creative practitioner, I use creativity in its many forms as a platform to empower and give autonomy and agency to the individual. In enabling opportunities for participants to experience new things and express themselves freely, I have seen how this can lead to an increase in self-esteem and pride in their achievements.

I have worked within the criminal justice system for Novus for 15 years. During this time, I have seen first-hand the shifts in people’s behaviours, self-worth, confidence and attitudes through their engagement in the arts, and how this then translates into positively impacting on the transformative nature of the sector.

Our aim at Novus is to champion the arts and its value to society, the communities we work in and the learners that we support, ultimately contributing to reducing reoffending.

Creative thinking and innovation are key components to improving employability and social development. The opportunities that engagement in the arts and culture present offer an excellent environment in which our learners can grow. It is by offering engaging and challenging activities and opportunities within arts and culture that we will encourage learners to make a valuable contribution to their surroundings.

In my role as Operational Lead for Creative Arts and Enrichment, it is my privilege to create spaces that enable opportunities for those in prison to engage in art. I understand the positive contribution that art can make in the criminal justice sector. The space created empowers an individual to explore and embrace new experiences, helping shape a positive identity.

For me, there are two main benefits for engaging in the arts, both of which are intrinsically linked:

  • the value of arts in enabling self-development
  • how self-development aligns to a rehabilitative culture.

An example of this can be seen in the collaborative work we do with the Tate, and in particular the national project, ‘A Future I can Love’, which I led in 2020. The project ran from March to October. Novus learners in prisons and young offender institutions across England and Wales were invited to respond to a brief developed in conjunction with the Tate, based on the Tate Exchange theme for the year, ‘Love’.

The brief was devised to be embedded into existing education provision, enhancing curriculum areas through project based learning, and empowering individuals to shape the project outcomes. The pieces created were to be part of an external showcase to increase awareness around ways in which engagement in creative activity supports rehabilitation along with supporting community cohesion and reducing stigma.

The success of this project was amazing: 389 learners from 52 establishments created 515 creative pieces, supported by 130 Novus colleagues plus a wider group of HMPPS and G4S colleagues. Given that the project was rolled out and completed in a global pandemic, within the national restrictions in place across the prison estate, this was a great achievement. People saw the project as a meaningful opportunity, a platform for positive engagement, and a way of using the imagination to mentally escape from the circumstance they faced due to the pandemic.

There is an ongoing debate around the value attributed to creative work within the criminal justice system. The prime function of the prison system is to protect the public, keep prisoners safe, support rehabilitation and reduce reoffending. So, it can be challenging to introduce an offer such as the creative arts as an integral part of supporting a prison’s aims and objectives.

While there is research that supports the value of the arts, there continues to be challenges around what is satisfactory for commissioners and funders. Demonstrating the impact that creative practice has on reducing reoffending is a piece of work which continues.

However, the pandemic has shown that there appears to be a greater reactiveness to alternative approaches, with the recognition that these can support individuals in valuable ways, such as with their wellbeing and mental health. It is now up to us to harness this acceptance and drive forward the importance and value of the creative arts to rehabilitation.

I’ve seen how the arts can change a person’s life. Martin* used his time in prison to embrace the learning that was on offer, building on his interests and skills in art and design. Whilst at HMP Buckley Hall he enrolled with the Novus education department, where he was able to build on his education and reading to help him move forward to his ultimate aim of a career in interior design. As he neared the end of his sentence, Martin transferred to HMP Thorn Cross, where he became an art mentor, and took part in the first collaborative project between Novus and Tate Liverpool. He was supported by the Novus team to build on his qualifications, both in prison and enrolling at a local college where he attended on release on temporary licence (ROTL). Before his release Martin applied to go to university, and was immediately accepted. Since then, Martin has completed his degree in Interior Design, achieving a First Class Honours, and is now undertaking a Masters in Building Information Modelling (BIM).

Martin says: “All the experiences I’ve had have allowed me to grow as a person, and my journey continues, to get myself into a career where I can provide for myself, so I can rise above my past and create a more prosperous and healthy future for my future family. My sentence will never define my personality or stop me from becoming the better person and achieving success.”

(*Martin is not the real name of the individual)

Note: the featured picture for this blog was created by a learner at HMP Thorn Cross in response to the ‘Future I  Can Love’ project.



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.

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Photography by Toby Madden/The Independent, Osman Deen/South London Press, Camilla Panufnik, Elspeth Van Der Hole, GDA Design, Gigi Chiying Lam, G. Bland, Alan Bryden, Mark Carlin, Rachel Cherry, Francois Boutemy, Andy Hollingworth, Rebaz Yassin, and Guy Smallman.

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