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The battle to end criminals reoffending is a work of art

Something historic happened this week up at Stormont - 80-years-old this year. An exhibition of prison art went on display. For the first time, prison art is centre-stage at the heart of government.

For many people, prisoners are simply bad people, who should be locked up and forgotten about; for others, they are a troubling subject they'd prefer to ignore.

So why did the powers-that-be allow this exhibition of prisoners' self-expression to come right into the seat of our democracy? Because we asked them to.

Prison Arts Foundation (PAF) is a registered charity, which has been working in Northern Ireland prisons for more than 15 years. We also work with ex-offenders outside prison and those on probation serving community sentences.

PAF is one of many agencies that work within the Northern Ireland Prison Service. It was created in 1996 by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, alongside interested individuals from the Community Arts Forum and the Community Relations Council.

The exhibition in Stormont features work in many forms: the written and spoken word, music, song and visual art, including ceramics and handicrafts.

Some of this work has won awards nationally and internationally but none of this work was produced in isolation; it was produced by bringing offenders together with practicing artists through (PAF) art residencies.

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Many prisoners enter prison with little, or no, qualifications and it is estimated that 70% are below Key Stage 1 in literacy.

The best chance we have of ensuring that a man or woman doesn't reoffend is to change how they behave. The only way to do this is to transform how they see themselves and other people.

Art is not a soft option; the act of engaging in a creative process demands something of the participant. Art asks questions, demands answers.

It is impossible to engage in a creative process and not be touched, affected, altered, changed.

The work on show in Stormont comes from the three prisons and Young Offenders' Centre and the Inspire Women's Project.

Making this work was often the first positive engagement within the prison and for many it had the additional benefit of being a route back into formal education.

If we want to stop re-offending, we have to enable our prisons to change the behaviour of those who are incarcerated.

Locking criminals up and leaving them alone will not achieve this outcome.

This action would make inmates bitter and more likely to re-offend when they are released. If we want to stop re-offending, we have to engage prisoners and challenge behaviour, so that rather than repeating old patterns, new attitudes are formed. Artists are a vital part of this process; they impart skills and they teach, but they also provide a credible link with the world of work (a world that every convicted offender must re-join) and they demonstrate through their work that it is possible to make a living by harnessing one's own skills and creative energies.

All prisoners will eventually be released - some will be released on licence, some will have custody probation orders, or other conditions and some will be on registers; however, they will all be released.

Though many wish it were otherwise, as a society we have to engage with offenders; first inside prison and then outside when their time is done.

This is difficult work, but it can't be dodged, it has to be done: prisoners have to be integrated back into the community. Rehabilitation is hard work. It is extraordinarily difficult to break with everything one has been and to start again.

Prison Arts Foundation exists to facilitate and encourage this difficult process through the use of the arts.

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