How museums can help prisoners connect with their loved ones during Covid-19

Q&A with Francesca Cooney, head of policy at the Prisoners'​ Education Trust
Covid-19
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Rebecca Atkinson
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A sample of postcards donated to This Small Change, a project between museums and the Prisoners' Education Trust providing postcards to prisoners during Covid-19
A sample of postcards donated to This Small Change, a project between museums and the Prisoners' Education Trust providing postcards to prisoners during Covid-19

This Small Change is a project run by the Prisoners’ Education Trust, which asks museums to donate old stock of postcards to prisons in order to help prisoners stay in touch with families and friends during their extended Covid-19 lockdown.

Museums Journal spoke to Francesca Cooney, head of policy at the trust, to find out more.

What impact is Covid-19 having on prisoners?

At the start of pandemic, there was a real worry that coronavirus could spread very quickly across prisons. As a result, prisoners have been locked up alone in their calls for up to 23 hours a day, no longer able to receive physical visits from their friends and family. They can make calls but not receive them, and they have no access to the internet. Non-essential staff – such as teachers – have not been able to access prisons and are unlikely to be allowed to do so for some time.

How is the trust responding to this?

The Prisoners’ Education Trust provides funding to enable prisoners to undertake distance learning. During the pandemic, we have set up a free helpline for prisoners interested in finding out more about education options.

We are also facilitating This Small Change project, which came about when Guy Atkins, an artist, contacted us to see if access to museum postcards might be something that prisoners would find beneficial during this time. As well as providing a way for individuals to contact their families during lockdown, we thought that being given a postcard of a painting or photograph would give people something to look at or be inspired by during a very difficult period.

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How does This Small Change work?

Through his own professional relationships, Guy arranged for Tate and the Postal Museum to donate old stock of postcards to us. We then contacted HMP Pentonville in London, which we felt would be receptive to such a scheme, and they were happy to distribute these to prisoners.

The Postal Museum also donated stamps – normally, we might have struggled to get these sent into prisons but Covid-19 has meant some prisons are being more flexible, and the prison governors gave us approval. Prisoners also received handwritten cards as part of the pack, and Guy says this and the care with which the packs were put together made a real difference.

Feedback from prison staff and prisoners has been really encouraging and we hope the relationship between the museums and Pentonville might be ongoing after lockdown.

Can other museums get involved?

If museum or gallery wants to get involved, then they can contact us and we will try to find a prison close to them. All they need to offer is any excess stock of postcards that they are unable to sell or don’t have use for.

There is a real opportunity for museums and prisons to work together to support prisoners, but it’s very unlikely that prison visits will be possible for some time. This Small Change is something museums can do in the meantime to support people in prison and make those links – who knows where it will lead.

If you’re interested in getting involved in The Small Change or want to find out more, contact francesca@prisonerseducation.org.uk

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