Threat to prison-led initiatives - Museums Association

Threat to prison-led initiatives

Concern that restructure of prison service to focus on payment by results will affect sustainability of museum projects. By Gareth Harris
A government restructure of the prison service has raised questions about how the museum sector engages with offenders, and whether prison-led museum initiatives are sustainable in the long term.

The main aim of the Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme is to “reform the delivery of offender services in the community” (see box). The consultation for the new strategy has finished, and the changes will start to come into force from April.

The Arts Alliance, a coalition of arts organisations working in criminal justice settings, has subsequently commissioned a report, Reimagining Futures, co-authored by researchers at Northumbria University, which considers the impact of arts projects on prisoners.

The report states: “This piece of research demonstrates a clear link between taking part in arts-based activities and the movement towards secondary desistance [refraining from offending].”

The Arts Alliance is, however, concerned that the reforms’ introduction of payment by results could jeopardise arts-based interventions in prisons.

Arts Alliance manager Jessica Plan says small arts organisations that work in the criminal justice system are at risk because many arts services are closely associated with achieving intermediate outcomes such as improved self-awareness.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman says: “We are committed to rolling out payment by results, under which providers will be paid in full only if they are successful at reducing reoffending, helping drive innovation and getting best value for hard-working taxpayers.”

The Open Museum, Glasgow Museums’ outreach service, develops “the active role museums can play in the city’s social justice and equalities commitments”, says its curator, Claire Coia.

In the period 2013 to 2016, the Open Museum aims to focus on three strategic areas of development including continued liaison with the criminal justice system.

Previous prison projects, such as Keep on Trucking with HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow, have had rehabilitation as a core aim, says Coia. “Done well, projects can be a positive learning experience and a stepping stone to better choices,” she adds.

But Coia is concerned about museum-led initiatives’ sustainability: “Long-term strategic partnerships with the prison service need a consistent and realistic approach. As a public service, we are held accountable to our communities, which can ask why museums should be working with prisoners in the first place.”

Could museums do more?

John Vincent, who coordinates the Network, an information initiative for museums, libraries and archives tackling social exclusion, says a change in the mindset of museums is needed, plus institutional perseverance and commitment.

“You can’t just dip in and move on,” he says. “I am concerned that in-depth work with socially excluded people is thinning.”

The sector needs to address organisational commitment to outreach, as well as issues around resources.

Key reforms

  • The market will, according to the Ministry of Justice, be “opened up to a diverse range of new rehabilitation providers”, drawing on the public, voluntary and private sectors.
  • Payment by results will be used as an “incentive to focus on rehabilitating offenders”.
  • The public sector National Probation Service will be set up, and every offender released from custody will receive statutory supervision. Thirty-five potential bidders hope to win a share of the rehabilitation contracts.

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