Hearing how the arts can be such a powerful support tool from a man with years of experience in prison can be truly overwhelming. In conversation with UEA Creative Writing lecturer Jacob Huntley, David Breakspear talked about his journey of reformation from criminal behaviour, emphasising the importance of external support and the need for a radical change in society to enable ex-prisoners to start a reintegration process. The talk, part of the War of Words conference at UEA, discussed the importance of Arts education in prisons and the need for ending the stigma around the prison system.

Huntley and Breakspear met through creative writing workshops that Huntley led at HMP Norwich, where, using the same exercises UEA students encounter in their creative writing seminars, prisoners were able to make art out of their most emotional experiences. Breakspear commented that liberating oneself through artistic expression provided the support and dignity which is currently lacking in society. Together with other opportunities, such as a radio course with Future Radio, these workshops helped explore the human emotions that social stereotypes and stigmas constantly dehumanise.

He insisted on the fact that, while there is a lot of social change needed, art and creative education are able to provide the necessary welcoming and supportive environment towards reintegration. Enabling people to release their experiences and issues could be one of the ways to support the journey of imprisoned men and women towards rehabilitation.

Huntley emphasised the emotionality of the art and writing they encountered in Norwich prison. You could find truly “amazing artwork” flourishing from the darkest of thoughts, they both insisted. Their strength and truthfulness made some of the pieces award-winning artwork.

Indeed, five Koelster awards were given to crafts and poetry created in Norwich prison in 2017. The awards, presented by Koelster Trust charity, encourage the rehabilitation of imprisoned individuals through artistic expression and monitor and support their reformation process.

Using his years of experience and his familiarity with the prison system, Breakspear is currently working on several projects that aim at reintegrating ex-prisoners into society and ending the stigma around imprisoned and ex-imprisoned individuals.