Creative project for care-experienced people in prison

An artist’s perspective on working with care leavers in Deerbolt Prison

Artist Nicola Golightly describes her experience of putting together a ‘Creative Aid’ kit to gather opinions from care-experienced young men serving sentences at Deerbolt Prison.

Artist Nicola Golightly has been working with care-experienced young men serving sentences at Deerbolt Prison, to find out what impact being creative has on their lives, and discover what they would like to achieve through creative activities longer term. Here’s Nicola describing her experience of putting together a ‘Creative Aid’ kit to gather opinions during COVID.

What does consultation look like? What does it feel like? And how can it be anything but boring? Those were the questions I asked myself when Blue Cabin got in touch to ask if I would be interested in designing and facilitating a creative consultation for care-experienced young men in Deerbolt Prison.

I’ve never worked in a prison before, but the offer of the opportunity to collaborate with a different group of care-experienced young people really intrigued me – especially with the request coming from Blue Cabin! I hadn’t heard of NEPACS, but with introductions via Zoom and wonderful vibes, I knew this was definitely an opportunity to create something new and exciting for a different group of people. Lord knows I love a creative challenge. Twinned with chats about homemade brownies – obviously!

In initial conversations, we considered access to the prison, what was possible, who I would be working with and the structure of this unknown entity. As an artist and designer I thrive on detail, structure and clear boundaries. NEPACS and Blue Cabin set these perfectly, with care and consideration for everyone who would be involved.

Then there was the COVID thing. Suddenly, any foundation for building participatory projects was removed. The prisoners were in a double lockdown, unable to leave their cells and we spoke about the young men in Deerbolt really struggling with their mental health. I could only imagine how incredibly difficult that would have been. Quite rightly, the whole project had to change. And the boundaries. And the opportunity. And the way in which we could plan and run it.

Pen and paper are my go-to. I began mapping out the way in which we could ask questions, without it feeling like an onerous, tick box exercise. Ordinarily, I would plan an active and engaging session in-person. We would introduce ourselves and our favourite biscuit. Reacting and responding to each other and sharing a space was always so critical to my methods of engagement. How would we do this? What would be the hook? What would feel wonderful in such a dark time?

A gift! A gift of creative activities. A gift of items that could be created and even regifted. My mind went straight to my growing collection of old first aid tins. A colleague gifted me a beautiful lost/found first aid kit many moons ago which I had cherished. Inspiration sandwich for sure! I thought of my Mum, Janet, and the first aid kit myself and my sons had put together for her during her treatment for bowel cancer, as we weren’t able to see her with all of our germs. A first aid kit seemed right – I would create a first aid kit for the creative soul. The ‘Creative Aid’ was born.

Without knowing it, I was stepping into the realms of ‘gift theory’, as my good friend and fellow collaborator, Claire A Baker informed me. It had such a strong reasoning behind it – whilst also paying tribute to my dearly departed Mum.

The ‘original’ first aid kit had comprised of a pill box full of reasons why we loved my Mum – bunting, a thank you card and lots of small things to open and experience. I took this as inspiration and ran with it.

The Creative Aid contained creative activities, instructions and quality materials. It came from me, describing the project and clearly stating our intentions to create a longer-term project for them to benefit from. I designed an ‘alternative questionnaire’. This consisted of questions, with options and space for ‘anything else’. With the help of Blue Cabin Associate Jane Gray, wordsmith extraordinaire, we shaped something which was accessible and clear.

I connected my learning from Creative Life Story Work and ensured the different activities were about the young men. They could make ‘let there be light’ shrines from their own memories, alternative self-portrait zines and a whole lot more. A kind friend Louise, cut the vinyl lettering for the clean white boxes to replicate a vintage First Aid box typographic style. For future in-person sessions, I included a Doodle Jam with a script, for NEPACS staff to run when possible.

Then I delivered them, with trepidation and hope.

It was a little while until the news filtered back to me that the Creative Aid boxes had been received at Deerbolt. They had been a success. Alternative Questionnaires had been completed, feedback from the young men was so positive and NEPACS had been able to do a face to face Doodle Jam. Astounding, in such a difficult moment in time, that success was achieved. These outcomes won’t stand still. As we speak, Blue Cabin are looking to use these outcomes and real life responses from the young men to design and grow a creative project which ultimately enhances the lives of young care-experienced young people.

And it felt like I was holding my Mum’s hand every step of the way.

Find out more about the Creative Aid project.