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June 08 2012

Featured photojournalist: Rodrigo Abd

The Argentinian photographer documents life at San Pedro Sula Central Corrections Facility in Honduras

May 18 2012

Designer jail: inside Norway's Halden prison - in pictures 

No, this is not a Scandinavian boutique hotel, it is a class A prison housing murderers and rapists

Sponsored post

November 21 2011

Greetings cards showcase prisoner's art - in pictures

A prison penpal scheme sparked the idea for Cards from Prison, a social enterprise featuring a prisoner's artwork

Prisoner's artwork spawns greetings card social enterprise

Widow sets up Cards from Prison after penpal's talent thrives behind bars

Cards from Prison is a not-for-profit initiative created by 72-year-old widow Hilary Peters. Peters, who used to work as a garden designer and once started a city farm in London, decided to act after witnessing the growing talent for painting in a prisoner she had befriended via a charity-sponsored penpal scheme. "Neville is just coming to the end of an eight-year sentence," she explains. "He's one of those chaps who has been in and out of prison nearly all his life, mostly for drug offences. Now he's in his early 60s and, hopefully, this is the last time [he'll be in prison]."

Neville (not his real name) sent her his first painting about four years ago. "It wasn't bad," she says. "But then he joined the art class in prison and started getting better and better. He was still on drugs when I began writing to him. But he came off them by his own effort when he started painting. I saw him progress at an astonishing rate from other pictures he sent me over the years, and then suddenly his talent just shone through and I thought, 'Yes, other people should be able to see these.'"

A year ago, Peters had the first painting made into a card. It was a picture of a polar bear. "It was beautiful," she says. Her pension and income support is her only source of income, but she managed to scrimp together enough money for her first foray into digital printing.

"I didn't know what I was doing at all at first. I just searched for a printing service on the internet," Peters says. "Eventually, I had the first batch printed, and sold them very quickly to friends and family, making enough money to print the second batch. In the meantime I set up Cards from Prison as a social enterprise. We now have five designs, with another three on the way, and other prisoners who want to paint for the cards."

Peters has never advertised the cards. All her sales are generated by word of mouth. But she hopes to generate enough demand for the cards to provide employment for ex-prisoners. "The more cards I print, the more I sell and the more work I have to do," she says. "Ideally, this could be a way of providing work for ex-prisoners who are finding it hard to get a job."

The difficulties she has encountered to see the project through have been draining. "The bureaucratic hoops I've had to jump through with the prison service have almost worn me out," she says. "And, of course, the prejudice towards people in prison is not very nice to deal with – society dumps all its bad feelings on prisoners. But this has made me more determined to show that, given a chance, people in prison can do some good and can produce some beautiful things that can bring a great deal of pleasure to others."

The cards are free. "People can have as many as they like," says Peters. All that is required is a £5 donation to cover administration and postage costs.

• For cards, write to Worcester Lodge, Didmarton, Gloucestershire, GL9 1AH. Cheques should be made out to Cards from Prison. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 08 2011

New exhibition offers insight into women's experience of prison

Girls Behind Bars showcases the work of women prisoners, and offers the public a different view of the criminal justice system

See pictures of some of the artworks here

Eve McDougall has come a long way since 1979 when, at 15 years old, she was serving a two-year sentence in an adult prison for breaking a window. "I was hungry. I saw bread in a bakery so I broke in. I can't tell you the mental damage it did being in an adult jail. I was terrified. When I think how things have turned out I can't believe it."

Now 52, McDougall, who describes herself as a "self-taught" artist, is to show her artwork in an exhibition in London. From 9 March McDougall's work will be on display along with that of other women ex-prisoners and prisoners in a gallery run by the mental health charity, Together. "I've been drawing and painting since I was a kid," she explains. "I've always found it so therapeutic."

The free exhibition, Girls Behind Bars: Female Experiences of Justice, which McDougall helped organise, will include works ranging from video installation to sculpture to painting, as well as short stories and poetry. McDougall believes it will offer an insight into the often harsh experiences of women prisoners.

"The hope is that it will give members of the public and people who work in the justice system a different perspective of women who have been in jail. It's about opening minds."

Claire Monger, who co-manages the gallery for Together, says the idea for the exhibition came to her after meeting McDougall. She was so impressed she asked her to be a consultant on the project, working with experienced curators, Ronee Hui and Louise McDonnell. "Through the art and words of female prisoners, offenders and ex-offenders the exhibition aims to explore their life experiences, and what justice has been like, from their points of view," Monger explains. "We hope it will raise further awareness of the problems that can be caused by sending vulnerable women to prison, and the benefits of alternatives."

Timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Corston report – a landmark inquiry headed by Baroness Corston following the deaths of six women at Styal prison, which looked at the experiences of vulnerable women within the criminal justice system – the organisers hope the project will shed renewed light on the issue.

Women account for just 5% of the prison population but campaigners are concerned – borne out by Corston's original report – that most are incarcerated for non-violent offences, while around 70% have two or more mental health conditions. Women also account for more than half of all self-harm among the prison population. Advocates are also worried that pressure on funding could threaten many of the support initiatives established after Corston was published.

"I really hope we can have an impact," McDougall says. "I want there to be greater awareness of our experiences. They matter."

The exhibition runs until 10 June at the Together Our Space gallery, 12 Old Street, London, EC1V 9BE. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 15 2011

Wormwood Scrubs photographed by Bettina von Kameke

Photographer Bettina von Kameke spent time inside Wormwood Scrubs prison, north-west London, observing inmates' daily rituals

January 11 2011

Caught on camera

As much investigative reportage as photography book, Like a Thief's Dream pieces together a real murder case through images of a killer the author met in a prison in Texas – and uncovered a probable miscarriage of justice

A friend gave me a copy of Like a Thief's Dream by Danny Lyon as a Christmas present. "It's not really a photography book," he said, "more a piece of investigative journalism with a few photographs." This is indeed the case, but it is also more than that. Published in 2007, the book went under my radar back then, but it is a fascinating read, one that speaks volumes about Lyon's approach, which has always been journalistic, and often campaigning.

The first thing that strikes you about Like a Thief's Dream is that there are, indeed, not that many photographs in it – just 24 in all. More surprising still, many of them are not by Danny Lyon, but are "found": mug shots, pictures from scrapbooks and personal journalism, and snapshots from family photo albums and an FBI wanted poster. Oddly, for a book by a photographer, the images are very definitely an accompaniment to the text rather than the other way around. In this instance, the text is an extended piece of what used to be called New Journalism, a form in which the writer often placed himself at the centre of the story. Both Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song sprang to mind as I read Lyon's account of a true crime – the murder of a young police officer in Arkansas in 1975 – and his evolving relationship with one of the convicted murderers, James Ray Renton.

"This is the story of a journalist and a thief," the narrative begins, "I am the journalist and Jimmy Renton, a man I met in a Texan prison, is the thief." Lyon, like many great photographers, is a fine writer. He is also a great investigative reporter, painstakingly piecing together a credible account of what happened on the December night in 1975 when officer John Hussey was murdered. Lyon puts Renton at the scene of the crime, though he never confronts him about what exactly happened of the killing, and his failure to do so becomes one of the many fractured, nagging narratives that contribute impressionistically to the bigger one.

Likewise the probable miscarriage of justice that Lyon uncovers: the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of Harold "Dinker" Cassell, who, at the time of the book's publication, had served 27 years in prison for a crime Lyon firmly believes he did not commit. Lyon uses both Cassell and Renton's letters and interviews in his telling of this strange tale, as well as the words of corroborating witnesses – some of whom did not come forward to testify at the time, so scared were they of Renton's possible retribution.

The bigger narrative of Like a Thief's Dream, though, is one that has exercised Lyon throughout his life as a photographer: the inhumanity of the American prison system. Like a Thief's Dream is a book that grew out of Lyon's earlier, more epic work, Conversations With the Dead, published in 1971. For that book, Lyon photographed conditions inside six Texan prisons with the full co-operation of the Texas Department of Corrections, which considered its system of punishment more humane than others in the US. "I tried with whatever power I had," he wrote at the time, "to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality."

It was during the making of that work that Lyon first met Renton, then halfway through an 11-year sentence for burglary. In Like a Thief's Journal, he describes him thus: "He was 28 years old, about three years older then I. He spoke with a dripping East Texas drawl that he had picked up in Port Arthur, the same town Janice Joplin, then at the height of her career, was from. He spoke to me with an almost gentlemanly charm … that made him immediately stand out from all the other men I had met."

Unlike the other men he had met – and photographed – in Texan prisons, however, Renton asked Lyon if he could also take a picture of him. He was, as it turned out, interested in photography – and fishing, and marijuana, both of which Lyon loved, too. "Jimmy was a thief who stood out among a population of thieves,", Lyon writes in Like a Thief's Dream, clearly cherishing the moment of identification. "Although he was one of my subjects, he was also, in a way, my equal. Someone who demanded to be taken seriously."

Ironically enough, none of Lyon's photographs of Renton made it into the final edit of Conversations With the Dead, but, alongside a handful of other inmates of Huntsville Prison, he did help the photographer create a small, portfolio edition of the book, which was made on the prison's printing press. He is credited on the front cover underneath Lyon's name: "Smiley Renton, *189994, Lithography".

It was shortly after being freed from Huntsville in the early 1970s that Renton was involved in the murder of police officer Hussey. The book traces his capture, conviction and his subsequent escape from prison – Renton was briefly on the FBI's most wanted list until his recapture. In one way, the book is a record of Lyon's deepening friendship with Renton, which lasted from that first fateful meeting until Renton died in prison – of natural causes – some 30 years later. Throughout, you sense Lyon's growing intimacy with a man who was both a charming confidante and a cold-blooded killer, and it is this identification with the outsider, a recurrent trope in Lyon's work, that has proven problematic to some of his critics.

"To some, he's idealising people who really are not good people at all, they're just criminals," his friend, the writer, Larry McMurtry, told the New York Times recently, "but, to Danny, they're just good people who never had a chance … he's an idealist, to a large extent."

Lyon, for his part, sees nothing wrong with that: "You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it. It's part of the process."

Interestingly, early in his career, Lyon assisted Robert Frank, whom he greatly admired, but, unlike Frank – a European self-exiled in America – his eye is never that of an outsider. To this end, he ran with the Outlaws' motorcycle gang for two years while photographing them for The Bikeriders, published in 1967. Once, while chronicling the civil rights struggle in the American south as a raw, self-taught 20-year-old, he ended up in a prison cell next to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

It is quite a leap, though, from that prison cell to the one in which he first met James Renton; and one of the strongest undercurrents in Like a Thief's Dream is Lyon's self-questioning voice, the one that seemingly nags at him more when he is writing than photographing; the one that asks him persistently why he is doing what he is doing. To this end, the book's epigraph is illuminating. It comes from Browning: "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things," it reads. "The honest thief. The tender murderer."

Those few lines cast some light on the dark motivations that underlie Danny Lyon's ongoing body of brilliantly challenging – and unapologetically problematic – work, and on our continuing fascination with it.

Now see this

The Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff continues to show strong work from established and upcoming photographers. It starts 2011 with a retrospective of Laura Pannack's work, opening on 15 January. It includes the series, Glass, in which she photographs people behind a piece of glass. Pannack won the 2010 World Press Photo Award in the single portrait category, and her intimate and self-assured approach to portraiture continues to intrigue. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 18 2009

Art behind bars

The Arts Alliance is showcasing the vast array of creative activities it teaches and promotes among the prison population

Anyone interested in getting a close-up of what really works in prison should try to get to the Resource Centre in Holloway Road, London, today when the Arts Alliance will be showcasing the vast array of creative activities it teaches and promotes among the prison population.

The alliance, formed a year ago, is a coalition of voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system to tap into the transformative power of the arts. Today's conference is aimed at the public, as well as professionals working within the criminal justice system. Attendees will be able to join in or observe theatre, writing, art, embroidery, story-telling and music sessions led by arts-in-prison pioneers such as Clean Break (women's theatre), Fine Cell Work (fine needlework), Good Vibrations (gamelan music workshops), Koestler Trust (visual arts), Dance United, and Music in Prisons. Participants from the projects will be available to discuss the impact the arts has had on their lives.

I remember what I gained from my own experience with creative activities in prison – and what I witnessed among others who shared those experiences. The fact is that, in 20 years of prison life, I never met a single rational fellow prisoner who expressed true joy at being a criminal. Behind their defensive masks, the prison population was made up mostly of troubled, problematic people filled with self-doubt, shame and guilt.

Victims of crime rightly expect offenders to be punished. But a negative, bitter prison experience will do little to instil any sense of empathy or obligation towards society afterwards. The arts can provide much needed healing, as well as openings to education and training.

When I was in prison, I saw how people who were made to feel good about themselves became more considerate towards others, less angry . . . and more likely to seek a better way of living. When encouraged to feel that we were valuable and had some real worth, the idea of causing anyone else harm or distress became abhorrent. One prison governor, talking about the Good Vibrations' workshops, says: "I don't do treats for cheats. If I didn't believe this was about reducing reoffending, I wouldn't be doing it."

The Arts Alliance aims to help offenders find the better part of themselves so they are less inclined to cause further harm and distress after they are freed.

Tim Robertson, the alliance chair, says: "Participation and achievement in the arts involve commitment, discipline, learning, feeling, humour, imagination, pain, growth – a holistic range of personal and social engagement. In criminal justice, the benefits run across the Noms [National Offender Management Service] pathways [to reducing reoffending], not just directing offenders away from crime, but opening up new horizons of understanding, responsibility and hope that offer the best opportunity for all of us to live free from fear."

• The Arts Alliance conference, Do I Get a Certificate for This?, is at the Resource Centre, 356 Holloway Road, London N7 6PA © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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