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The impact of arts programmes in criminal justice settings
Inspiring Futures evaluation focuses on social benefits of arts programmes in criminal justice settings

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Inspiring Futures

The Inspiring Futures research report “An Evaluation of the Meaning and Impact of Arts Programmes in Criminal Justice Settings” has just (3 June 2024) been published. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Inspiring Futures was an ambitious programme of work that examined how and why arts interventions impact on the lives of people in the criminal justice system, and how to best optimise their effect. Led by the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance, the project was a unique collaboration, bringing together eight leading arts in criminal justice organisations, University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, and participants within the criminal justice system.

The research

The research built on  previous attempts to demonstrate the importance and value of arts programmes and initiatives in criminal justice settings. It consisted of two studies, the first focused on the impact of the arts for participants involved in the programmes and the second  on the wider impact of the arts programmes, for the arts facilitators and organisations, for the criminal justice and arts sectors, and for audiences.

Main findings

The researchers explored participant impact in terms of creative development (‘creative capital’), their inner lives (wellbeing, self-concept and personal development), and their social worlds and opportunities. They found small but statistically significant positive changes from the start to the end of the courses across the whole participant sample.

Participants said they had learned new technical or creative skills, and that being able to be creative gave them confidence to try new activities. They described positive shifts in their wellbeing, their self-concept and their personal development. Some said the programmes gave ‘meaning’ to their lives and a sense of future agency (by attending another project or programme, or by thinking about future aspirations).

In terms of self-concept, two particular themes stand out: a growth in self-understanding and greater confidence to challenge oneself and put oneself in new and potentially demanding situations.

In terms of personal development both the quantitative and qualitative data indicate that participants felt that they had been given an opportunity to develop new skills and capacities that might make a difference in their future. Some said that their desire to work on their personal development had been reignited or inspired.

Participants also reported positively on the social impact of taking part in the programmes and the relationships that were built or strengthened with others, both within and outside the criminal justice settings. Thus there is evidence of ‘bonding social capital’; through participation new connections and friendships were formed. Relatedly, some participants felt that attending the arts programmes had brought them closer to their families – to their children, their partners, and parents – because of having something positive and uplifting to share with them, and because of an increased social confidence which had come about through participation.

The video embedded below provides a short summary of the research findings.

Wider impact

Looking at the wider impact, researchers found that the direct participation of staff members in the arts programmes could yield longer-term benefits for relationships between staff and prisoners. The presence of prison staff and managers at performances also demonstrated an important message to participants about the prison’s support for the arts activities and the staff’s interest in prisoners’ achievements.

One strong theme here was that staff and prisoners could see each other as ‘real people’. As well as the individual and relational legacies of the arts programmes on life within the prison setting, people spoke of a broader cultural impact. Instrumentally the programmes contributed to the prisons’ agenda for purposeful activity and rehabilitative programmes, but the courses could also create a ‘buzz’ within the prison that was energising.


This was a substantial study and the research programme was able to generate unique insights into the similarities and differences regarding the effects of different arts forms. While there were many similarities in terms of the positive experiences as described above, there were also differences between the art forms.

Drama activities involved embodiment of the self, with participants drawing on earlier life experiences, and subsequently engaging in intensive self-reflection and reflection on their own and others’ behaviour. The drama programmes also offered a high degree of flexibility in terms of improvised self-expression.

The music programmes provided greater scope for technical skills to be developed – with tangible outcomes.

Overall, the distinguishing feature of the arts programmes in this study was the focus on ‘the social’ – social interactions and relationships were intrinsic to the creative activities, learning, desistance-related and other outcomes for participants.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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