The Arts and work with offenders

The use of pictures in my working life then took something of a down turn. For a time, I was the manager with strategic oversight of the Handsworth Cultural Centre in Birmingham. I think in part the impulse that created the Centre was similar to that which involved me in storytelling and finger painting – that use of imaginative and creative arts could help people discover positive attributes and resources in themselves that could turn them away from the more destructive imaginative life associated with criminality. Whilst music was a key feature of the Centre’s work, it is the art and photography exhibitions that I remember most vividly. They celebrated a positive cultural self image for a rather battered black community and were a source of pride for those involved.

However, I proved completely unable to help the Centre become a substantive part of the Probation Service that had invented it. There seemed to be something in the experience of probation work that was unsympathetic to the creative and remained sourly preoccupied with a more puritan focus on ‘tackling offending behaviour’. This was a pragmatic and materialistic culture, and one preoccupied with power and victimhood, such that officers could not see the relevance of creative expression other than as a decorative sideline. Oddly, it was not just that probation officers rarely referred clients to the Centre. A good number were somehow hostile to its existence – its playful and imaginative side seemed to be a threat and was resented by staff who remained locked in a more depressive complaining world. Better it seemed to ensure that the Cultural Centre was a waste of resource, an indulgence, than to ask different questions about how they engaged with the worlds that their clients occupied. It was as if to allow oneself to engage with the Centre would be to open up floodgates of unmanageable distress about the sad lives of many offenders and the sadder realities of the impact of their crimes on themselves and their victims. Traditional probation relationships were a great help in preventing such distress to come to the fore – the client was kept in a subordinate role, morally on the defensive, with worker and client playing into a fantasy that treated the gains from material wealth as the only significant driver of behaviour and pursued a grim struggle with all that was unfair and impossible.

And so the Cultural Centre declined and closed as Probation moved into the much safer world of ‘accredited programmes’ and their word based manuals.

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