Reflections on practice and evaluation from poet and writer Louisa Adjoa Parker.
Earlier this year my colleague Adrienne Pye (Senior Consultant, Evaluation) worked with writer and poet Louisa Adjoa Parker, supporting her to evaluate a writing project which included working with prisoners at HMP Channings Wood, Devon, and HMP Exeter.
Most of us would agree that learning and creativity has the potential to play a powerful role in rehabilitation of prisoners. I wanted to chat to Louisa so she could share more about her direct experience of facilitating writing work with prisoners.
Key considerations for evaluating arts engagement projects with prisoners
- If in doubt keep it simple. It was decided that a simple feedback form would be the best tool for evaluating impact because it was not possible to take in any audio or filming equipment.
- A tiered approach to support different literacy levels. Simpler versions of forms were created with comparable questions to support those who may be overwhelmed or have lower literacy skills.
- Extra caution around personal identification. It may be obvious, but Louisa needed to be extra careful to ensure any data collected would not personally identify individuals.
- Sharing the purpose of why she was collecting demographic data. Whilst this is not unique to this project, Louisa found that some participants were less receptive to answering questions about gender and sexual identity. However, they were happy to do so once Louisa spent time explaining the purpose of this (I.e. that it helped Louisa and funders understand more about who was engaging in the project).
- Streamlining content. Rather than lots of very different targeted questions about specific outcomes, questions were broader. For example: what did you enjoy most; what would you change? This approach fitted the tight timeframe and meant open responses could be analysed and coded later on.
- Importance of multiple perspectives: Feedback from the prison staff and reflective learning from Louisa was important to building a complete story, particularly as time with participants in this environment can be very limited.
Tips for creative engagement practice in prisons
Louisa has recently established a company – The Inclusion Agency – and is planning to do more long-term projects with prisoners in the future. Here are some key things she will be bearing in mind herself and advises arts organisations new to this audience to consider:
Manage expectations around outcomes and outputs
Previously Louisa had been keen to do repeat sessions with the same participants but had little control over this and ended up worked with different groups for each workshop. She believed the quality of the output – an anthology - and the learning outcomes for participants would have been greater if they had worked over a sustained period. Louisa advises having a clear discussion about what could be achieved, depending on how many participants are involved and the depth/length of engagement.
You may have little control over the learning environment and resources so be prepared to be able to adapt your plan. It is also likely that you will have little knowledge of who is taking part and their prior experience until you go in. You may not be able to meet specific needs or ensure absolutely everyone will benefit, so be comfortable with this.
Louisa says that prisons are completely different worlds, each having quite unique cultures and challenges. She advises purposefully putting aside thinking about why any of the prisoners are there, take them on face value and focus on your creative role. She advises that it is crucial to remember you are dealing with some vulnerable people and it is to be sensitive to their needs. Go in with openness; don’t be judgemental. Louisa reflected that it can be emotionally draining being surrounded by people who have experienced pain and trauma, but hugely rewarding to see how creative engagement contributes to their development.
Taster sessions to build relationships and interest
Engaging in creative workshops like this can be the first time some prisoners have had the chance to express themselves and tell their stories. Developing lighter touch programmes can build trust before something more long-term is initiated. Evaluation of Louisa’s project demonstrated that prisoners who previously showed little interest had heard about the opportunities from those who participated and were keen to get involved in the future.
Be extremely clear about safety
Obviously, prisons are unique and sometimes intimidating environments. Discuss in advance all the relevant safeguarding considerations about external contractors, especially around who will be in the classroom with you. Louisa reflected that this can vary from prison to prison.
Building in additional evaluation methodologies for longer-term projects
Whilst Louisa would still keep it simple she would add in some more non-form based feedback to future projects, such as a feedback wall on a flipchart or post-it notes.
"The feedback from the sessions has been extremely positive and has highlighted how important creative writing can be as a means of expressing previously unexplored thoughts and feelings."
Resources about art in the criminal justice system
- If our blog about writer Louisa’s experience of working in prisons has whetted your appetite for more on this subject then Koestler Arts is a great source of inspiration and resources. This section of their website shares the impacts of their amazing work. There are lots of other inspiring examples out there, such as Create’s Inside Change project where creativity enabled prisoners to improve confidence, develop financial literacy skills and reduce re-offending.
- In this Arts Professional article Jess Thorpe shares why she thinks there should be more art in prisons, and this piece by Dan Boydon shares guidance on how to run projects in prisons. If you are looking for more evidence around the impact of this work have a look at the Arts Evidence site which has collated some specific evaluation of arts projects in prisons.
Photo credit: Robert Golden
Featured in the August edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter will share updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.