Drugs help to numb the pain of trauma – and of incarceration – but art can be an integral part of recovery, SteelDoorStudios (a serving prisoner) explains.
Am I conflicted? Damn right I am. I’ve led a life of strife and turmoil, always feeling like an oddball. Even in my earliest of memories as a toddler I recall feeling like the odd one out – for such a tiny word, ‘odd’ can evoke vast amounts of connotations. I’ve no doubt that most of you at some time or other will have experienced your own concepts of odd – where did it take you, I wonder?
For me and many of those of my ilk, the odd continued down the surreal world of narcotic abuse, trying desperately to find something to fill that void in my soul whilst enduring the accompanying feeling of isolation and disconnection, which was just as painful as any of the physical beatings I’d experienced.
I never set out to be an addict – it was a natural progression for me. A child full of pain and angst looking for a salve. That salvation would eventually be found in heroin. It may well seem a bizarre statement to refer to heroin as my salvation, yet that is what it is. For without the unique properties that are very specific to heroin I believe I never would have got beyond my formative years. There is something about that particular drug that no other narcotic offers – it’s like injecting apathy. Being completely able to function without having to feel anything is like a dream come true for those of us who have experienced deep childhood trauma.
Yes, we all know it’s a double-edged sword. Just like any drug it takes its pound of flesh and the piper has to be paid, but today I have reached my mid-fifties and being a heroin addict was just part of my journey. I did what I did to survive, I spent over four decades in institutions of one kind or another, and when I look around all I see is despair reflected in the eyes of those trapped in the cycle of substance use.
Our prisons have become warehouses, revenue-generating machines processing the lost souls of addicts on a conveyor belt destined towards a revolving door. For those of you whose images of prison are shaped by the archetypal lovable rogue Norman Stanley Fletcher, you wouldn’t recognise the 21st century prison service. Between April 2018 and March 2019, the prison population was just shy of 80,000, and of that number 53,193 were in treatment – and that’s excluding those who claim not to be using. This is my backyard, I live here and I can testify it’s an epidemic, and what are our leaders doing about it? What’s their solution? Build more jails!
Robert Buckland, the recently demoted justice secretary, announced that £4bn would be ploughed into the criminal justice system with the go-ahead for 18,000 new prison spaces. I’m sure that each and every one of you has your own opinion on such a contentious subject and I can only offer mine – however it’s people who live here who truly get to see what goes on behind closed doors.
So let me tell you a little of where I am at today. I’m currently residing in one of only a handful of therapeutic prisons in our country. This particular environment differs in many ways from the rest of the British penal system, the most prominent of which is that there is an actual desire to help men address their issues. Not just the criminal values they might hold, or the offending behaviours they may present, but assisting them to delve into their whole history and supporting them throughout the whole sodding mess.
I don’t have the space to write anything in depth on the subject, but it’s safe to say I feel like one of the lucky ones to have been afforded the opportunity of looking at my life and knowing I don’t have to be just a faceless number, warehoused in some dilapidated, festering, Victorian cesspit of a jail and waiting for the day the authorities tell us they’ve had their pound of flesh and we can now go free. Free from what, I ask? The steel doors that I’ve spent the vast majority of my life behind? This place offers me the chance to achieve real freedom. To find the peace and serenity I’ve longed for throughout my miserable existence.
As I said earlier, this establishment differs greatly from mainstream jails. I’ve always had an interest in art, although I came to painting very late on in life and I often found myself with pencil or pen in hand during my incarcerated years. Sadly, however, the focus on the therapeutic value of art in prison has diminished significantly over the past couple of decades, and these days you’d be lucky to find a canvas and a brush available. Not so here – we’re funded by an outside trust that not only encourages us to express what is prominent in our lives but also offers assistance via an artist in residence. We also have a forward-thinking governor who championed my desire to create an anonymous website accompanied by a monthly blog in order to share my thoughts and images.
Art has become an integral part of my journey of recovery. It offers solace in times of turmoil and affords me the opportunity to reflect upon who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m heading. I’m often asked, ‘why don’t you paint something happy?’ Yet despite the morose nature of most of my work it actually does make me happy. I ask questions of myself in those paintings that I wouldn’t have previously dared to, let alone understood.
With each new piece I can spend days, weeks and months contemplating my life and gain insight from even the tiniest nuance. I’m getting to know me and learning to find comfort in my vulnerabilities as well as my strengths. My whole life has seen me raging at the world and pointing the finger of blame. The painting You’re Looking at the Problem is a true account of one individual’s intervention in my life – he had placed a scrap of paper under my mirror one day with those words scrawled upon it. Today I see those words clearly and I am the problem. I’m also the solution.
The second of the paintings I’ve chosen to share with you is Anonymity. As COVID struck, our establishment along with everywhere else went into full lockdown. We returned to 23 hours of isolation which was exactly how it used to be for me in the early years of my sentence. We had become the forgotten once again, and even when restrictions began to lift ours were only alleviated by an extra hour. For 16 months we’ve endured 22 hours of bang up. It was one of the most testing times of my life, as I had to fight my old behavioural demons on a daily basis. I had some failures and some success, but I had my artwork to keep me company throughout.
The final piece, At Odds, is my favourite painting of the last couple of years. A decade of intense bitterness at my plight had seen me become a twisted soul where nothing ever made sense and I only felt pain. I now find myself in an environment of intense scrutiny where even the minutia of my behaviour found its way under the microscope of analysis and often left me at odds. As the years go by, I find myself feeling more at ease with my paintings and sharing my truth. The truth really does set you free and to that end I will wish you all good fortune on your own journey. For my wonderful partner, I would like to thank you for all your help and endless support.