Thoughts, stories and events to share

The Koestler Trust

Eleanor De, about 6 years ago

'It's so important to know that although you are cut off from society and civilisation, there are still people to communicate with and who are listening.'

The Koestler Trust is the UK's best-known prison arts charity. They work to challenge negative preconceptions about the capabilities of ex-offenders with the aim of helping people lead more happy and positive lives and increasing public awareness of arts by prisoners. Based just outside HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London, The Koestler Trust partners with organisations across the UK to achieve these aims, providing ambitious and innovative programmes that capitalise on the resources and expertise available.

Participation in the arts is encouraged through awards, mentoring, sales, exhibitions and events, the most famous of which is their annual exhibition in partnership with London's Southbank Centre which, this year, ran from 21st September - 15th November and was curated by one of Britain's most revered artists, Antony Gormley. Previous curators have included Sarah Lucas and Benjamin Zephaniah as well as serving prisoners and graduates of the Koestler Trust's mentoring scheme. This allows new perspectives to be brought to the selection process. The artwork is selected each year from the thousands of pieces of art (including fine art, design, music and writing) that are submitted to the Koestler Awards. Some pieces in the Southbank exhibition are sold and the proceeds are split between Victim Support, the Koestler Trust and the artists.

As well as the main Southbank exhibition, two or three local exhibitions are also held across the UK each year which involves the work of local groups and artists who help to shape the content. To date there have been exhibition programmes in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Gateshead, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Cardiff and you can visit the Scotland Exhibition curated by Jenni Fagan in Glasgow between the 10th November and 22nd December 2017.

'It gave me the confidence to believe in my artistic ability and the drive to get better at what I do.'

The Koestler Trust's exhibitions and events provide a vital insight into the lives of prisoners and detainees and help to showcase the talent and potential of ex-offenders to the public, helping to challenge negative stereotypes. In recent years, the exhibition has involved tours and presentations to the public led by ex-offenders who are specially trained to present the work and answer questions. This is also an incredibly useful way of breaking down preconceptions about ex-offenders, encouraging meaningful interaction between the general public and those who have experienced the criminal justice system.

The Koestler Trust was born out of the work of the writer Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) who campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment. After it was evident that the death penalty would be abolished (and it was in 1965), he focused on developing 'an imaginative and exciting way to stimulate as far as possible, and in as many cases as possible, the mind and spirit of the prisoner'. Koestler decided to set up an annual scheme to award work in the arts by those who were physically confined which was an unprecedented scheme. The first round of Koestler Awards took place in 1962 and it has continued every year since. Now they work across the UK criminal justice system, in custodial settings such as prisons, medium and high security hospitals, secure children's homes and immigration detention facilities, but also with people in the community (such as those on probation or on community sentences).

Since 2007 the Koestler Trust has supported ex-offenders by matching them with specifically trained arts mentors. This scheme is designed to support those who have a keen interest the arts to help them develop their skills in the community through building their portfolio, disseminating their work and applying for educational courses, amongst other things. Mentees are given up to 7 mentoring sessions over the course of a year. Dr. Cheliotis from LSE conducted an impact report on the scheme by studying the results of 6 years of mentoring. He found that the ex-offender mentees developed greater confidence in their abilities, became more driven to achieve success and conceptualised their futures in ways opposed to crime. These pro-social attitudes are linked to a reduced likelihood of offending and, additionally, unemployment among the sample group fell from 50% to 33%.

One Koestler Award entrant commented:

“I believe the best avenue for rehabilitation is in the discovery of a genuine passion for something in life. I find this in writing and the feedback and encouragement your organisation give[s] to prisoners cannot be measured in money".