Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Shakespeare Behind bars - Surprising art scene at Ngawha Prison

They were born into gangs and abusive ­childhoods. Crime and violence were ­common, alcohol and drug ­addiction ­rife. The downward spiral ended at Ngawha Prison. It's a strange place for a flourishing arts scene where the Bard is making his mark. Dionne Christian reports.

It's nearly the end of the week and that Friday afternoon vibe is in the air. You know the one - everybody's a little more chilled and chatty.

It's good to sit in a sun-drenched hall listening to a band play a mix of ­reggae-infused R&B and alt ­country.

They're joined by singer Claire Braiden, who has a soft and soulful voice and wears a solid, metal key chain attached to a black belt on her prison uniform.

Braiden is a corrections officer and the band is made up of inmates from the Northland Regional ­Corrections Facility (NRCF), known as Ngawha.

The place is 11 years old, can hold up to 548 low-medium-­security ­inmates and would look like a school or regional polytechnic if it weren't for the high perimeter fence surrounding the complex and the security, including x-ray machines, you pass through to enter.

The security brings an airport to mind, but the journey for those who end up here isn't something to look forward to.

Inmates speak of being born into gangs, having abusive childhoods and needing to fend for themselves from an early age. Crime and ­violence was simply part of the only life they knew.

Others acknowledge they had chances, but made bad ­decisions and serious mistakes.
Alcohol and drug addiction, with medical and/or psychiatric ­illnesses - frequently undiagnosed - ­often go hand-in-hand. In addition, many arrive at Ngawha barely able to read, write or do basic maths.

It's a strange place for a fledgling band and an even stranger place to come across Shakespeare.

Mike* is a recovering alcoholic who was con­victed of aggravated assault on his partner. He was raised in a ­violent household - "that was the norm for me" - and says his lifestyle led him to prison but, for many years, he was in denial about the ­severity of his actions.

After the Ngawha band plays, they stand to talk about what they've gained from Shakespeare Behind Bars. Photo / Brett Phibbs
After the Ngawha band plays, they stand to talk about what they've gained from Shakespeare Behind Bars. Photo / Brett Phibbs

He describes himself as a ­different person now, saddened by how negative his lifestyle was and the impact it had. "I don't want that for my kids. I don't want it for my kids' kids. I want something ­different - I'm breaking the cycle."

And he's breaking it thanks, in part, to Shakespeare. In Ngawha's Te Pua Wananga, or meeting room and church, the walls are decorated with tukutuku panels made by inmates doing an extensive range of arts programmes, including ­drama, music, creative writing, painting and whakairo (carving) classes.

Ngawha was this week awarded one of eight accolades from Arts Access Aotearoa. It's funded by ­Creative New Zealand to make visual and performing arts accessible to those suffering a physical, sensory or intellectual impairment.

But Arts Access Aotearoa's brief has expanded and it is now the country's largest organisation ­using arts in rehabilitation, a ­programme funded by the Department of Corrections.

Ngawha got its Arts Access in Corrections Leadership Award for "the breadth of its achievements, its education outreach, innovative practices and focus on the arts and culture as a tool supporting prisoners' rehabilitation and reintegration into the community on release".

In the past year, the Mairangi Arts Centre held two exhibitions of ­prisoner art, writer Charlotte ­Robertson helped the men write and illustrate a book for prisoners' children, carved pou were ­donated to the M­airangi Walkway and ­prisoner art was auctioned to raise funds for community groups.

Prisoners during their performance of the Shakespeare Behind Bars programme. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Prisoners during their performance of the Shakespeare Behind Bars programme. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Visiting artists and practitioners ran programmes at Ngawha, the Weka Unit was set up to focus on creative industries and rehabilitation and Te Wananga Aotearoa's whakairo course was introduced.

Even the inmates accept it's fair to ask what men who have committed crimes, some extremely serious, are doing taking art, drama and music classes when they're meant to be being punished.

But our justice system is founded on the belief criminals can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. Our re-offending rate is down, but it is higher than Corrections would like.

Assistant Prison Director Simon Tanner, an Englishman trained as a civil engineer but who did painting and drawing night classes, says the men are in a "correctional institute", but the issues that led them there still need to be addressed.

He shares an anecdote about a visitor who came determined to disapprove of Ngawha's arts and cultural programme.

"At the end of the day, they looked at me and said, 'What society has left behind, you bring here and ­embrace and put on a new pathway'."

Worldwide, there's growing recognition of how the arts can be used to teach skills in prisons needed to return to society: empathy, problem-solving, discipline, perseverance, team-work, accountability, confidence and self-expression.

At Ngawha, these classes and activities are giving men like Mike newfound skills and teaching them there are other ways to live.

Visiting artists, community ­educators and groups run classes under the watchful eyes of officers.

Beth Hill, arts tutor at Ngawha, believes the benefits of the arts, singing and music are invaluable. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Beth Hill, arts tutor at Ngawha, believes the benefits of the arts, singing and music are invaluable. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Beth Hill, of Redemption Arts, is head arts tutor and distance ­education facilitator and has worked at Ngawha for three years. Inmates describe her as a tutor, mentor, friend, guide and mother hen.

"What's good about the arts? Well, it's pleasurable, it's fun and at the same time it teaches so much," Hill says.

"If you don't have a language to express yourself, surely the arts are the best way to do that whether it's through dance, performing, painting, drawing or singing and music?"
Are we using it enough?

"No - that's the simple answer. I should be offered far more extensively all over the country in a ­variety of settings. The benefits are clear for everyone to see."

Hill oversaw the introduction of the Shakespeare Behind Bars Programme at Ngawha. It arrived in New Zealand courtesy of Auckland University's Creative Thinking Project. With Arts Access Aotearoa, it brought founder Curt Tofteland from the US to learn more about drama in prisoner rehabilitation programmes.

Theatre practitioner Tofteland started Shakespeare Behind Bars 20 years ago at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky to use drama to teach real-world life skills and to smooth re-integration into society.

It worked. The recidivism rate for Shakespeare Behind Bars ­members is 5.1 per cent, compared to the ­national 60 per cent recidivism rate in the US and 29.5 per cent for ­Kentucky Corrections.

Mike joined Shakespeare Behind Bars at Ngawha. Tofteland asked the men to think how they'd answer such questions as: "Who am I, what do I love, how do I want to be remembered, and what's my contribution to humanity?"

These questions prompted a good deal of soul searching and discussion.

After the Ngawha band plays, they stand to talk about what they've gained from Shakespeare Behind Bars. The men speak confidently. Each says they could not have stood up and spoken in public before taking part. Many are honest enough to admit joining for a change of scenery.

Mike says without the drama ­programme, he doubts he would have learned the self-awareness to take responsibility for his actions. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Mike says without the drama ­programme, he doubts he would have learned the self-awareness to take responsibility for his actions. Photo / Brett Phibbs

But they discovered new ways to reflect on and talk about what ­landed them in Ngawha. One says he thought the whole thing ­sounded "funny" so he didn't join, but curiosity got the better of him.

He came to watch and discovered a safe environment where men expressed honest opinions and feelings usually well covered by bravado.

"And suddenly I realised I was learning stuff, too," he says.

Another decided to make the most of his time, to push himself to try positive challenges and drama classes seemed a good place to start. A third says he enjoyed the ­learning so much, he is thinking about going to university.

Mike says without the drama ­programme, he doubts he would have learned the self-awareness to take responsibility for his actions.

"I would have been in denial."

Shakespeare Behind Bars is just one programme, the band is ­another. It doesn't have a name, but members write and perform music.

Dave* arrived at Ngawha and said he could "sort of" play the ­guitar. Turns out Dave could more than "sort of" play the guitar.

He was good and he'd long ­wanted to do more with music. When asked if he wanted to write his own lyrics, he couldn't read or write properly to do so. The chance to learn how to write lyrics became the spur to learn. Dave now reads, writes and pens lyrics.

Shakespeare Behind Bars is just one programme, the band is ­another. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Shakespeare Behind Bars is just one programme, the band is ­another. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Then there's an older prisoner, John*, who says he's here because he stuffed up, made stupid mistakes. John is determined not to waste these years, so he has taken art classes, joined the Maori culture programme, started creative ­writing and come to drama.

He recalls choosing school certificate subjects and reluctantly leaving art in favour of the more vocationally orientated technical drawing. It shut down an avenue he found useful for self-expression.

"I can only imagine what I have missed out on that I would have absolutely loved," he says. "I hope to build up a portfolio of work while I'm here which I might be able to use.

"I'm also very interested in ­environmental issues and I've donated work to be auctioned for various causes and programmes.

"When you're locked away from your life for a long time because of a mistake or poor decision-making, it's a hard thing. Empathy is a very important thing that we all need to learn and I am working on that here as well as getting a late life ­education."

Tanner says the vocational ­aspect is important.

Inmates can study and gain ­formal ­qualifications. Arts is especially useful for reaching those who don't respond to more traditional ­teaching methods.

"We have one inmate coming up for parole and he didn't want to go because he was doing whakairo [Maori carving] and had a project he wanted to finish," says Tanner.

"So we were able to link him up with a master carver. When he leaves, he'll go live and work with this man and continue his training."

* Names have been changed.

Simon Kerr's painting. Photo / Supplied
Simon Kerr's painting. Photo / Supplied

From escape artist to prison painter extraordinaire

Simon Kerr, one-time member of the infamous Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, prison escapee and activist, started painting classes at Ngawha. His talent was recognised as "remarkable" and he's now painting and regularly exhibiting his work. Often autobiographical, it features the story of his life, his journey from prisoner to free man and his thoughts on redemption and the place of humanity.

Kerr was raised by his mother in Devonport and his latest exhibition opens this afternoon at the suburb's Depot ArtSpace. His most recent work features eddie ramshackle, an alter ego Kerr describes as a raw and basic representation of himself.

"I have found that, in general, it is more acceptable to people to be confronted with the views of a fictional character rather than those of an actual person," he says. "I am comfortable with eddie, but I hope that he has room for development and growth. This Blackboard Series reaches out to those who view it and asks them to be a part of that growth. But eddie has strong views that seem black and white and I recognise the challenge of showing distortions of his views. eddie is my mirror."

• Kerr will talk about his work tomorrow at 2pm; the exhibition runs until Wednesday, August 31.

- Herald on Sunday

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