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Meet Sally Taylor, CEO of prison arts charity Koestler Trust


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Helping offenders, secure patients and detainees to work creatively, Koestler Trust highlights the power of the arts to improve people’s wellbeing and self-esteem through their award scheme, annual exhibition and mentoring scheme.

The charity was founded by writer Arthur Koestler in 1962 who, while in prison, experienced first-hand how beneficial creative outlets such as writing could be for prisoners.

Following the charity’s recent annual exhibition at Southbank Centre which was titled ‘I’m Still Here’, The National Student caught up with Koestler Trust’s CEO, Sally Taylor. We chatted to her about the charity and the positive effects that the arts can have on the lives of offenders, secure patients and detainees.

Image: Sally Taylor, Koestler Trust

Before joining Koestler Trust, Sally had run productions of West Side Story and Guys and Dolls in Wandsworth Prison through her work with Pimlico Opera. She says, “I knew at that time that it was the hardest and most rewarding thing I had ever done.”

Having seen the impact that the arts can have on prisoners, Sally wished to continue her work in prison arts. “When this job came up a few years later, I was very attracted to it,” she says. With a touch of modesty and a laugh, she adds, “They thought I would do.”

Koestler Trust’s award scheme is very well established, receiving entries from around 250 different establishments. The awards have 52 different categories, and works by successful entrants are shown in their annual exhibition and additional regional exhibitions.

Image: Family Tree, HM Prison Shotts, Patrick Holmes Platinum Award for Painting

However, with prisons across the country facing significant financial cuts over recent years, there are increased challenges to ensure prisoners continue to have access to arts support and education.

Sally tells us “Our entry numbers are up this year, I’m thrilled to say, but it’s not a given – we still have to work very hard to make sure that happens.”

As well as the awards scheme and exhibitions, the charity also offers arts support to a number of ex-offenders for around a year after prison release through their mentoring scheme.

Sally describes their arts mentoring as “very much a bespoke scheme,” with each work plan created to suit the specific needs and interests of the person involved.

Offered to 30 people a year, the mentoring scheme can help individuals to develop particular skills and learn more about their arts subject, potentially helping them to pursue careers in creative fields if they wish. The time and training involved in the scheme can be invaluable, with some of those involved choosing to focus the sessions on building arts portfolios that can help them to apply for Foundation courses.

Image: AAAARGH!!, Bolton Probation Office, mixed media on board

“When people are released [from prison], it can be a very, very difficult time for them,” says Sally. “Of course it is something that they want to happen; of course it is something that they’ve looked forward to, and of course… with any luck, they really don’t want to be back inside.

“But, it’s also a very chaotic time for them because they’ve got to forge their way in the world,” she continues. “They’ve got to find themselves all sorts of basic things like a place to stay… a doctor, a bank account and a job.”

During this challenging time, Koestler Trust’s mentoring scheme can be vital, introducing a sense of stability and routine into people’s lives, along with helping them to express themselves through creative outlets.

Image: Josephine Brain Cell, HM Prison Standford Hill (Sheppey Cluster), Si Pickard Commended Award for Sculpture

“Having [mentoring sessions] as a safe place… in their lives, and something to focus on amidst all the other things they have to deal with really can help with their self-confidence and their self-esteem and their ability to cope.”

The work of Koestler Trust can be potentially life-changing; the arts support and education offered by the charity, along with the recognition and celebration of artistic talent through their awards scheme, can help people to find a new sense of purpose and self-belief both during and after their time in secure institutions.

If you would like to get involved with Koestler Trust as a volunteer, keep an eye out for opportunities on their website.

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