The art awards scheme for offenders, secure patients and detainees

We’re the UK’s best-known prison arts charity. We’ve been awarding, exhibiting and selling artworks by offenders, detainees and secure patients for over 55 years.

Our awards receive over 7,000 entries a year – inspiring offenders to take part in the arts, work towards positive achievements and transform their lives. Our national exhibition attracts 20,000 visitors – showing the public the talent and potential of offenders and people in secure settings.

We have no endowment or capital – our work depends entirely on donations.

Read more about us

A Mentor’s story

My first session as a Koestler Arts Mentor

The Koestler Trust runs three days of training for our mentors. We consider carefully which successful mentee applicant they’ll be matched with, and complete background checks to ensure compatibility. Mentors receive a pack of information about their prospective mentee including examples of their work and then exchange letters before they have their first meeting.

‘You never know who’s sitting at the next table – those people in the queue – who are they? Is it HIM? Two poets lurk in a Bristol cafe, locate each other by text message and are soon in the back garden talking.

Sometimes you never know who’s sat across the table, we had the whole afternoon to find out. From a mentoring point of view I wanted to strike up some rapport and common ground as quickly as possible. I decided against turning up with a dusty copy of the Collected Works of Horace and a furrowed brow. I wanted to share words not teach or lecture.

We started with a discussion about what poetry is, the preparation I’d done was very useful, alongside Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Langston Hughes were Lennon & McCartney, Jarvis Cocker and hip-hop rapper Slug. This set the tone for the rest of our meeting and I could sense us both relax. To build on this I made it clear that for me there is no right or wrong in poetry and that the sessions would be prejudiced by my own obsessions, interests and eccentricities.

I could see straight away that we shared a genuine love of words and that there was great scope for us to have a very interesting twelve months. I had set a piece of pre-meeting work which I was pleased to see had brought a response, the task was to describe what was interesting about a favourite work of art, we were soon talking about layers, hidden images and strange angles, all good stuff for poets!

Poems written in prison were read, I had previously only seen them on paper, where to be brutally honest they seemed a bit lifeless. Out loud the sense of rhythm, music of language and languid delivery gave the words a whole new depth.

We ended the session by sketching out some plans for the future, open mic events we could go to, poets to see and libraries to visit, I left a list of resources which could be explored in the local library and broaden knowledge of the live circuit and of how poetry is developing.

Like any good poet I will finish with a worn out cliché: ‘we saved the best for last.’ Strangers two hours previously, we parted company shaking hands on a busy street, my poetic buddy’s comment repeating in my head as I walked back to the station, ‘I’ll tell you what Michael, I was worried y’know, but you’re, well you’re normal, just like me.’


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