Deerbolt Exterior Shot (credit Nepacs)

The practicalities of working with care-leavers in prison

Children who have been, or are in care, are vastly over-represented in the justice system: care leavers are estimated to represent between 24% (1) and 27% (2) of the adult prison population, despite being just 2% of the adult population.


1 K. Williams et al., 2012
2 Social Exclusion Unit, 2002


In response to this, Blue Cabin is delivering Creative Aid – a partnership project with Nepacs, supporting young men in Deerbolt Prison to be recognised as artists. Here, the core Creative Aid team – Nic Golightly, artist in residence; Jane Gray, Blue Cabin Associate, and Sarah from Nepacs – share some of the practicalities and planning necessary when working in a prison environment.

What benefits can creativity have for people serving prison sentences?

Creativity provides an outlet for people in custody – an opportunity to focus on something that’s their own, that isn’t right or wrong, and that can provide an opportunity to get their thoughts and feelings out in a different way.

A lot of the lads we’re working with have very disjointed or limited experiences in formal education, so coming along to a relaxed, creative environment in a group setting, and with the prospect of an Arts Award at the end, will go a long way in developing their belief in what they can achieve.

Being creative (and having the opportunity to show others that creativity) will hopefully bring a feeling of pride, and show them that there are so many alternative avenues for jobs, hobbies and participation in the arts, both in custody, and in the community following release.

And what benefits do you think this programme could lead to for other people, including friends and family of the young people, staff at the prison and people in the local area?

Showcasing creativity and achievements will hopefully have a positive effect on the way that these young people are viewed by the wider public and help them to feel more connected.

Sharing with other young people within the prison and with staff will bring people together in a different way and encourage other young people to be creative or participate further down the line.

Family and significant others are so important for rehabilitation, and resettlement in the community. Being able to share something like this with those who are important to them (friends, personal advisors, family etc) will add a new dynamic to those relationships, and the conversations that can be had during visits and phone calls.

We hope that the work we develop, create and showcase, will also play a role in prison staff learning about the power of creativity and therapeutic and pedagogical approaches to learning.

What kinds of creative activities will the group at Deerbolt be taking part in?

At this point, we don’t know entirely. We’re at the start of the project and the framework is in place, but for this to be a truly co-produced project, the outcomes are unknown to us all until we are in the space, making work and discussing what the potential is.

We do know that, initially, the lads in Deerbolt will be supported to think about their own life story creatively. This will align with the Blue Cabin Creative Life Story Work ‘All About Me’ model, which helps children and young people make sense of their own life stories.

We’ll explore this creatively through book making, illustration, collage and paper-based activities. We’ll also establish ourselves as a studio from the outset and explore what that means in terms of our collective contribution to the project.

We will find out about the group’s collective creative interests and decide who we would like to work with next (alongside Nic, as the artist in residence, there will also be visiting artists and companies who come in for additional activities, performances and workshops). The lads will complete an Arts Award qualification too.

Has the Blue Cabin team had to undertake any additional training on working in the prison environment?

We have all undergone Nepacs’ Hidden Sentence training and, following security clearance, the core team will undergo HMP’s Self Defence and Key Holder training.

Nic has also had the opportunity to shadow Sarah in order to understand the prison and the way in which we will navigate the space. She has also met with other artists who have extensive experience of working in prisons. This has informed a lot of conversations, thinking and a rather extensive ‘How To’ document, which will be shared with all Creative Aid artists going forward.

There will be further training around prisoner safety in the coming weeks, and we’ve spoken to the prison staff to make sure we know as much as we can about the lads, and also to make sure that they know as much as possible about the project. Keeping those lines of communication open will be vital for the success of the project.

Can you share any advice for other artists or charities on working with care-experienced young people serving prison sentences?

For Blue Cabin, working in partnership with Nepacs is key – we definitely wouldn’t be able to do this work without them! They are the ones with the experience, expertise and relationships in the prison.

Other advice would be:

  • Give the planning and development plenty of time – this isn’t something to rush into
  • Be aware of the security clearance procedure, and the time that can take
  • Have open conversations about any challenges or risks
  • Make sure you know what the security procedures are for checking any materials
  • Remember that the lads are the experts by experience
  • Remain consistent, friendly and non-judgemental
  • Focus on relationship-building
  • There are never any stupid questions!

Thank you Nic, Jane and Sarah for sharing this insight into working in Deerbolt Prison. You can find out more about Creative Aid by listening to this episode of the Creative Life Story Work podcast, where Nic and Sarah talk more about what’s happened in the project so far.