The Great Prison Art Exchange

instilling hope and positive purpose in prisons

The Great Prison Art Exchange is a collaborative project between Arts Lab, HMPs Dartmoor and Exeter, EDP drugs and alcohol and the wider community. It was started in January 2018 by Amanda Sherriff (community project co-ordinator with the prisons and EDP) and Sara Downham-Lotto of Arts Lab. The aim has been to convey a positive message of hope and opportunity to permeate prison and community environments. We are achieving this by running a series of artist-led workshops with prisoners and community groups culminating in collaboratively created artwork to adorn spaces inside and outside of the prison establishment.


  • to reduce instances of self-harm, suicide and substance misuse in prisons

by building confidence and opportunity for positive creative distraction through workshops

  • to imbue the prison environment with an overarching ethos of value, respect, hope and optimism

by transforming the physical fabric of the prison(s) with quality artwork and signage

  • to instil a sense of pride and importance and self-worth; to improve relations between prison staff and prisoners; to engage with purposeful activities; to create happier, healthier prisoners and prison staff

by involving prisoners in the transformation of their environment – physical and social (sharing/ exchanging ideas and making)

  • to improve relations between prisons and community; to build bridges and challenge the ‘us’ and ‘them’; to instil the sense that everyone can make a difference

by involving the community in improving the physical and social environment (sharing/ exchanging ideas and making)

“It’s a novel idea that I think has great promise. If we can get people engaged and involved, I think the project will be inundated with those wanting to submit work to be displayed. Furthermore, we’re enthusiastic about ‘outside’ work being brought in and displayed. I’m most excited about seeing the works both inmates and the wider community produce and how they are interpreted and absorbed. This is a very exciting project and I think it will be well recieved.  Happy days. Thanks”.   Anon Dartmoor prisoner

As the project develops, it will broaden its reach by working with groups outside of the prison environment together with further groups of prisoners. Our goal is to engage a diverse ‘creative task force’ across the community, working with students of art and community groups, all who contribute to the creation of panels of artwork to be installed within prisons and community spaces (gallery or otherwise).

What’s been said so far

(The project) “encourages inclusivity and is challenging in a good way. It took me outside of my comfort zone and connecting with others. I felt encouraged watching other people’s eyes open to art and seeing their inspiration firing outside of the session. I think it encorages self-expression and I hope that we can keep going.”   A prisoner

Probably the most fulfilling project I’ve been involved in, The Great Prison Art Exchange makes sense on every level. From a professional artist’s perspective – engagement in art making with a purpose (i.e. transforming the public spaces of the prison and impacting the quality of life for the prisoners); opportunity to learn from and develop new approaches to teaching and learning; opportunity to spend more time in the studio developing personal practice; fulfilment from collaboration with broad-ranging groups and individuals.”

“It’s a win win and potential model for other Arts Lab projects working with other community groups.” Artist/ facilitator

“A fantastic experience to be involved in such a collaborative project. The group responded brilliantly to what was required and such individualism in the finished pieces was great to see. For me personally, the enthusiasm everyone showed for art was inspiring.” Plymouth College of Art student (PPD – professional practice development)

Considering this has been written about our most difficult-to-reach prisoners, it has been an incredible pilot.”  Community engagement manager

Art student’s recount of the first 2 workshops:

Day 1 

The participants came in quietly and sat in a circle of chairs ready for the artist’s project brief. No-one knew each other. All were prone to self harm, and not used to being in a group or interacting with others for periods of time. I say this, because what was later to transpire with the group, makes their achievement all the more remarkable.

The brief for a collaborative artwork was simple, with an open invitation to participate. No one said anything. No one moved. By way of getting things going, I was asked to make a start. As I got up, a couple of the participants went straight to the paper, picked up a pastel and started drawing. Within seconds, the rest, again without a word, did the same. They went for it and soon started talking, with the occasional chuckle. 

I feel quite emotional recounting what we witnessed that first day, given the turmoil these individuals had been through and were still undoubtedly struggling with. It was inspiring to see how they all came together, naturally taking things in their stride. Three hours flew by. The shared enthusiasm to fill the paper with marks and colour, resulted in a fabulous first layer. With the suggestion of a motif or pictorial device to link the whole lot together, someone came up with the idea of snakes and ladders. Everyone then worked hard incorporating these into the picture. Just one person held back from the painting – a keen onlooker and more comfortable with the role of recording the action on the prison camera. He would also sporadically volunteer suggestions to further improve the splash of colour.

The group were given a task to complete before the next session.

Day 2 

Everyone had stuck to the task brilliantly, producing some really thought provoking and personal pieces. By now, the group had really gelled, with doses of positive banter, sarcasm, laughter and constructive discussion around artwork, mounting and display. Lots of ideas and creative doing flowed, the spell of total engagement unbroken.

Feedback from the participants about the work they independently made in their cells was also positive; comments about distraction from the daily routine of prison life and being enagaged in an activity with a purpose beyond that of just making pretty pictures. And so we celebrated with another collaborative mixed media painting, now working more freely and experimentally, enjoying the surprises that came from playful interractions with mixed materials, brushes, cards, shoe prints and blotting.

Next task? Watch this space …..

Back at the Arts Lab studio at Dartington, Sara has been working on her part of the project – paintings integrating elements of prisoners’ work into the fabric of her own collages.  The images below show the work in progress towards display in the corridors of Dartmoor Prison. … And in the meantime, between fortnightly workshops, Amanda Sherriff has been talking to the prisoners in the GPAE group, resulting in promising feedback, summed up in the image below.