A new art exhibition is being displayed at Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, and Soft Touch Arts: Young People’s Art and Heritage Centre.

UNLOCKED is a collection of works created by men serving sentences at HMP Leicester, HMP Stocken, and the now-closed HMP Glen Parva, as well as those on remand and on probation. The exhibition – split between Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery and Soft Touch Arts Young People’s Arts and Heritage Centre – will become an annual event in line with a three-year mental health research project. The project is a partnership between Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust, Soft Touch Arts, HMP Leicester, DeMontfort University and Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Rutland Community Rehabilitation Company.

Soft Touch Arts has undertaken art and music projects in Leicester’s Glen Parva Young Offenders Institute since the company started over 30 years ago. Whilst undertaking a project with inmates in 2017, it was announced that the prison was closing. The Leicester based organisation was able to transfer the remainder of the project to HMP Leicester.
Work in the prison started in April 2018 with support from the then governor, Phil Novis. Kieran Walsh and Lewis Buttery of Soft Touch Arts worked with prisoners on a broad range of themes and in different media, creating artwork that drew attention away from the visual surroundings of the prison environment to create a more peaceful and inspirational mood.

The exhibition is the first in a three year research project in collaboration with Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust and De Montfort University into the positive impact of art on the rehabilitation and mental well-being of prisoners. The work focuses on the CHIME(Connectedness, Hope, Identity, Meaningfulness, Empowerment) model of recovery. The CHIME method has not previously been focused around the arts, nor considered in the criminal justice context.

Based on previous pilot projects, UNLOCKED will introduce new concepts to address the needs of prisoners who experience mental ill health, and to evidence the efficacy of the arts methodology through an academic study in partnership with Dr Victoria Knight, Senior Research Fellow, Community and Criminal Justice and Ben Carpenter, Associate Head of Visual and Performing Arts, Associate Professor Fine Art at De Montfort University.

Having had the chance to visit the exhibition already, the eclectic mix of works is astounding. UNLOCKED boasts everything from hauntingly lifelike pencil drawings to cartoons, graffiti to political art, watercolours to simple pen and paper. As well as art, the exhibition also features poetry, and in the New Walk Museum you can find the moving story of Will – a man suffering from mental illness his entire life – who realised he had a talent for drawing when a fellow inmate stole two of his pictures to keep for himself. He expresses hope for his future now that he has found something that he is passionate about, and this demonstrates the importance and the success of the project in its aim of channelling their feelings into something creative. This is a truly wonderful exhibition that is worth seeing no matter your taste in art.

The UNLOCKED Prisoner Exhibition can be seen at New Walk Museum and Art Gallery and Soft Touch Arts on New Walk from 14th September to 12th October 2018.

Emily Burke is an English Literature student at the University of Leicester who constantly wishes she was still living in the North. Her interests include Law & Order and gravy.

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