Re-Imagining futures: exploring arts interventions and the process of desistance

Charlotte Bilby is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University.  Along with Laura Caulfield from Bath Spa University and Louise Ridley, also at Northumbria University, she carried out the research described below.

The context

At the beginning of the year, The Arts Alliance, a membership body which supports and promotes arts activity in the criminal justice system, commissioned research to investigate the relationship between taking part in arts activities and desistance from crime.  This project is part of the Arts Alliance’s process to build, collate and publicise evidence on the possibilities of creative practice changing people’s lives.

The coalition government’s Transforming Rehabilitation strategy means rapid change for criminal justice agencies and the way in which they provide support, management, punishment and rehabilitation for service users.  The agenda presents many challenges, but also acknowledges offenders’ complex backgrounds; it does so in an environment that highlights the importance of developing vocational skills that lead to increased employability.  Yet, there is also an understanding that there is an important role for other types of learning which might, for example, improve physical and mental health.  This, along with the belief that learning opportunities need to address responsiveness and diversity issues (NOMS, 2012; MoJ, 2013), suggests that there is an important place for arts activities within the criminal justice system.  Indeed the recent rapid evidence assessment of arts projects notes the positive impact that arts projects have on ‘facilitating readiness to change’ (Burrows, et al, 2013:4), and the government acknowledges this in the review of offender skills:

There is a long tradition of the arts being used within custody to motivate and engage learners, with much good work by voluntary and community sector organisations in support of that. We recognise the important role that the arts, collectively, can play in the rehabilitation process through encouraging self-esteem and improving communication skills as a means to the end of reducing reoffending… Engagement in the arts with the possibility of fresh vision, or at least a glimpse of a different life, often provokes, inspires and delights (BIS & MoJ, 2011: 19).

However, there is a need to evidence the impact the arts have on offenders’ motivation, intentions and journey to desisting from crime and realising their potential as crime-free citizens.  NOMS states that it will concentrate on commissioning services which have a proven track record of reducing reoffending.  Evidence, based on peer-reviewed quantitative research, will take precedence over ‘case studies and anecdotal reports’ (2012: 8).  It does, however, recognise that for many interventions it will not be possible to gather a level of quantitative data that is methodologically robust. We suggest (a) that this is particularly true of new and innovative projects delivered by smaller providers, (b) that it is likely that many arts practices fit within the categorisation of small and innovative projects, and (c) that this should not stop arts providers from endeavouring to capture data that will help evaluate outcomes.

The research

This research used a qualitative approach to investigate whether there was any evidence of the links between taking part in an arts activity while subject to a criminal justice sentence and desistance from crime.  The research addresses a number of questions

  • Do the arts contribute to an individual’s journey to desistance?
  • What intermediate outcomes do arts interventions contribute towards?
  • Do arts interventions enable people to form positive identities and build new narratives?
  • Do the arts contribute towards offenders building positive relationships?
  • Is there anything significant about the working relationship between arts staff and the offender, which might enable desistance?
  • Can arts interventions enable people to make significant behavioural changes?

Five projects in four locations were chosen to take part in this research.  The choices made tried to ensure that the impact on a variety of arts practice on different offender groups in varying criminal justice settings could be evaluated. The chosen projects were:A ISS music project run by a youth offending service (YOS) in a metropolitan area; art classes in a unit for personality disordered offenders in a high security prison; a creative writing project, run by the Writers in Prison Foundation and Padbooks, a bookbinding and paper craft project in a closed women’s prison; and a week-long, intensive music project, run by Music in Prisons in a resettlement prison for adult men.

The research team spent at least four sessions with each of the projects observing the activities and interviewing participants, arts practitioners and prison staff as part of an in-depth qualitative methodology.  The team also used participants’ written work and evaluations, and examples of the work produced in the arts activities.  This data was analysed using a thematic, content analysis approach.

A total of 30 individuals in contact with the criminal justice system participated in this research, alongside project facilitators and criminal justice staff. Twelve of the participants were female and 18 were male. Ages ranged from 15 years to age 50+. Eleven adult males were incarcerated within a high-secure prison, seven adult males within an open prison, eight adult females within a women’s prison, and four young people (three male, one female) were subject to community sentences or bail conditions.

The findings

This piece of research demonstrates a clear link between taking part in arts-based activities and the movement towards secondary desistance.  It identifies the importance of arts practice for the participants and shows what types of outcomes successful projects should be producing.  The research also highlights the importance of collecting qualitative as well as quantitative data on projects and their participants when measuring changes.

Analysis of the data across all five projects highlighted the following key findings.

The status of arts practitioners as professional artists is highly significant in the success of projects and their potential impact upon participants. The value of this should not be underestimated by agencies of the criminal justice system when considering utilising external organisations. The importance of practitioners’ status as professionals in their ability to gain respect has been noted elsewhere in the research literature (Caulfield, 2011).

I feel privileged to be working with a professional (Participant)

They’re the most professional and worthwhile music project.  [They] are positive role models.  They are clear about achievements.  Quick to engage the prisoners.  They bring different music backgrounds…so that it’s not just rap that glorifies crime… (Learning and skills manager)

The role of practitioners’ professionalism leads to the finding that arts projects are responsive to participant’s individual needs. The practitioners are able to identify the areas that the participants need to work on and tailor their practice to this, while still working within a ‘highly disciplined structure’ (arts practitioner).  Current policy documentation on commissioning services to meet offenders’ needs highlights the importance of responsiveness in meeting diverse needs.  Arts projects are considered by the people who run them as being safe spaces to achieve for people who often had never experienced or expressed a sense of accomplishment before.

Art provides the safe space to explore challenging questions and to make work which allows prisoners to discover that they have a creative eloquence and confidence not seen before. (Practitioner)

We take people out of their normal groove and expose them to a fresh learning experience…in which they succeed in incremental steps…(Practitioner)

This was also felt by the participants, who celebrated their successes and commented on the positive feelings that producing something gave to them.

I feel I went on a journey with [the painting], but in the end I felt a kind of peace of mind, a sense of achievement. (Participant)

Arts projects can have a positive impact on how people manage themselves during their sentence, particularly to cooperate with others – including other participants and staff. This correlates with increased self-control and better problem solving skills.

You share paint, glue.  It sounds stupid, but you know what it’s like in here… (Participant)

I had never been involved in a group piece before; being part of something, making something, being profound from found objects. (Participant)

The projects also facilitate high levels of engagement. This is significant because many individuals in contact with the criminal justice system have struggled to engage with productive activities in the past. Participants must engage in order to be able to redefine themselves. Engagement in arts projects has also been shown to lead to greater participation in education and work related activities.

Art helps engage with other things too, like the courses [I] had to do in order to move on. (Participant)

I would be lost without art. Back in the system… (Participant)

Participation in arts activities enables individuals to begin to redefine themselves, an important factor in desistance from crime.

I’m heading towards that ‘new horizon’, more positive, happy and with a more hopeful expectation for my future. (Participant)

Even the YOT worker agrees, gone from being depressed to happy.  Big change.  Think I’ve grown up. (Participant)

At Christmas I can get the kids crafty things to do and do with them.  It’s about my family… (Participant)

For some participants arts interventions help them manage their identity while serving long sentences, and for others they are able to think about the life through the gate or outside criminal justice agencies.

The findings from this research clearly indicate that arts projects can contribute to an individual’s journey to desistance. They highlight key outcomes for participants and the importance of the relationships with project facilitators. However, there is a need for longitudinal research, combining both qualitative and quantitative methods, to assess how far the findings presented here are sustained in the long-term.

The report was launched at the Arts Alliance annual Anne Peaker event, which aims to promote discussion and debate in this field. Last year, Prof Fergus McNeill presented a lecture Is desistance art?

The full report is available at

A full write up of this year’s event will be available soon on the Arts Alliance website:


Discovering Desistance is a project aiming to share knowledge and improve understanding about why people desist from offending.

The project involves:

  • Producing an educational documentary exploring the issues related to desisting from crime
  • Holding a series of workshops for probation professionals to examine the issues raised in the documentary
  • Exploring the implications of desistance research for probation practice and developing ideas about how to better support the process of desistance

The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.  The project lead is Fergus McNeill (Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow) and other members of the project team are Stephen Farrall (University of Sheffield), Claire Lightowler (Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services) and Shadd Maruna (Institute of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Queen’s University Belfast).