Art Behind Bars

As I walked past the Southbank Centre on my way home, I was struck by a stunning image behind the glass: a multi-coloured skull against a background of watches, which made me think of Damien Hirst's "For The Love of God."  I discovered it was just one piece from Art By Offenders: an annual exhibition of work by prisoners, young offenders, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees.  The exhibition is curated by a group representing an aspect of the criminal justice system (magistrates chose the pieces this year) and I returned a few days later, when my favourite art expert, Tamsin Dart, was available.

The quality of of the work is very high, but it's the subject matter and comments by artists or curators that makes this exhibition so poignant.  I thought it had the excellent effect of humanising those that are sidelined by society.  Its easy to forget that, whatever crimes they have committed, prisoners are still human, and this exhibition reminds us of the impact of sentencing and how we treat prisoners: Dead Time makes one think about just what offenders lose through incarceration; Constant Observation inspires thought on the dehumanising effect of constant control and observation; Crime Or Just Punishment makes you pause for a moment when you see sensationalist headlines in the Daily Mail, to empathise with the perpetrator and question the intention of imprisonment: should revenge and punishment be more important than rehabilitation?; They Still Wear Suits Like This, Don't They? was funny and sad at the same time, subtly portraying the challenges that greet a prisoner as he rejoins the outside world.

Art is used in the justice system as therapy, as part of qualifications, as outreach programmes, or just as a pastime.  This exhibition is a brilliant insight into the minds of those within our criminal justice system and, beyond the excellent quality of the work, is an important exhibition for anyone with an opinion on crime and punishment.  Get down to the South Bank exhibition centre immediately - the exhibition is free and on till November 20th, so you've really got no excuse.