ART REVIEW: ‘Re:Form’ at Southbank

Rudolf Arnheim once said that art is more than means of escaping boredom.

Yet, the biggest challenge facing the Koestler Trust is proving to the public that prison artists are not dabbling in doodling to pass the time. Rather, many are technically gifted creators with unique experiences and a great deal to offer the arts community.

Re:Form, a showcase of work by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees, is now in its eighth year. The exhibition is currently being hosted by the Southbank Centre and offers visitors the chance to view award-winning art curated by ex-offenders with experience of creativity in the penal system.

Whilst waiting for our tour guide, I was struck by the apposite setting. The vast windowless space of the Royal Festival Hall basement is striking when coupled with the pastel pink walls of a pre-school classroom. Something about the space oddly compliments a set of work which is at once hopeless and hopeful.

Our guide has been trained by the Koestler Trust to navigate members of the public and arts community through the gallery’s most striking work. Friendly and insightful, he offers us a unique insight into the artistic process of the award-winners, as well as contextual understanding of the sheer reach of the project.

“Many of the artists have not committed a crime” he explained, “but are immigration detainees or awaiting to stand trial”.

warrior koestler trustThe exhibit’s opening piece stands proudly at the entrance. Portraying a military bust through discarded objects found by prison officers and passed onto convicts, the ‘Warrior’ is a bold testament to collaboration between prisoners and security staff. The most imposing components of the statuette, such as sharpened implements and serrated brass, are strengthened by its significance: these items are contraband, revealing a level of trust between the artist and guards.

The Warrior is not a lone tribute to resourcefulness. Cost-efficient practices such as match-stick modelling are honed to unbelievable standards of detail and, sometimes, engineering.

Even the exhibit’s more humble offerings paint a unique picture of the everyday items that fail to live up to their assigned uses. Regulation prison soap, Ben explains, “has a distinct smell. No-one wants to use it for long.” The innocuous white bars are instead carved into homages to hope, including freedom, liberty and, of course, topless women.

immigration removal centres koestler trust

The tour ends on a colourful note with an untitled painting completed at the notorious Brook Hall immigration removal centre. Staff members speculate that the work depicts a young woman resting during the work day whilst in her country of origin. The style is naïve, but steeped in meaning. In the top corner, what seems like a senseless pattern is actually the universally recognised symbol for the ‘Human Rights Campaign’. Potentially, the artist is one of many asylum seekers fleeing state-inflicted torture or internment.

Re:Form prisoner exhibit koestler foundationSadly, we did not explore one of the most commanding paintings on show. ‘You May Have Your God but I Have my Bloodied Nose’ depicts two men sharing matching outfits, identical mannerisms, and arresting stares obscured by wild brush strokes. The piece is intriguing because the hands act as a detailed focal point while both faces are softly mutilated. The work is stylistically similar to Christian Hook (his work can be found here) with an otherworldly sentiment.

I wanted to know more about the artist but, like many works on show, this painting was submitted anonymously. “Not everyone wants to have their name associated with prison” the curator explained. Sad, but understandable.

In essence, Re:Form has succeeded on two counts. First, it has humanised prison artists in the face of limited resources and unlimited public scepticism.

More importantly, this space has comprehensively amplified the perspectives of those at the heart of the criminal justice system. We’d be foolish not to listen.

Re:Form is open until November 29th at Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre. Admissions and gallery tours are free and timings are listed on the Koestler Trust website.


What is the ‘Once Project’?

The ‘Once Project’ is the first training programme aimed at identifying the signs of human trafficking and torture in UK detention centres.

The training scheme lasts for one day, is located in London, and chosen representatives from 20 different visitor groups will have their travel and course costs paid for, thanks to subsidies from the University of Kent’s Amnesty International group, and the Kent Opportunity fund.

The programme is based on Stop the Traffik’s ‘Train the Trainer’ scheme, whereby all participants attend a day course on wrongful detention, and pick up the tools needed to become audited trainers themselves. After the training day, group leaders can disseminate information gleaned from this course in whichever way their organisation sees fit.

There are 20 places on this subsidised training programme, with space for one co-ordinator or group leader per UK visitor group. This training programme is a work in progress, and suggestions are welcome until May 15th. Check here to fill in our feedback form.

Why do we “save” slaves, only to imprison them?

We’re finally talking about modern-day slavery, but we can’t save the lives of trafficking victims until we offer a trust-worthy alternative, writes Maya Esslemont.

It’s a common question. “If trafficked victims get the chance, why don’t they just run away?”

Many don’t realise that by talking to neighbours, the police, or a charity, modern-day slaves perceive their lives to be at risk. Indeed, the BBC’s extensive coverage of the three women held in captivity often saw panel guests wondering aloud how it was possible for trafficked people to go shopping, and complete other mundane tasks, without making a break for it. “How could they go all that time without trying to call someone?” one columnist asked.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

In order for a victim to come forward, our country’s government must first beat traffickers in a battle for the trust of victims. For decades, we have been losing this fight.

When trafficking victims first arrive at a new location, the language is foreign and the officials are strangers. Most of the time, they have been ferried to multitudinous destinations and drugged during transit. This is why charities such as Stop the Traffik ask taxi drivers to stay vigilant for passengers who have no concept of time, location, or the language.

Yet, despite wide-spread knowledge that language is one of the main hurdles preventing victims from coming forward, the government has invested very little into tailored services that would allow victims to communicate freely. Many victims come from countries with corrupt systems of justice where traffickers can buy silence, and when we lack the ability to talk with victims, we also lack the ability to persuade them otherwise. There are currently very few specialist charitable facilities in the UK, and even fewer run by the government.

As a result, even victims who have been saved often go missing again, and this is especially true for children. More than two thirds of trafficked children disappear after being placed into care homes, running back to the arms of their captors in the belief that a life of servitude is safer than a life in Britain’s care system.

The figures are shocking, but should come as no surprise. Despite calls from dozens of charities and NGOs, we still lack one single council-funded safe house for trafficked children in the UK. Instead, child victims who have experienced specific sets of trauma, and have specific needs as a result, are put through a system which does not accommodate them at all.

Despite continued governmental liaison with the children’s charity ECPAT, two of the charity’s most important proposals are still ignored by local governments. Most notably, these recommendations from the organisation’s ‘Principles for the safe accommodation of child victims of trafficking‘:

Principle 8
A child should be given access to a range of psychological, educational, health, social, legal, economic and language support that ‘brings safety to the child’ and helps them recover

Principle 9
Everyone working with child victims of trafficking should be trained to recognise and respond appropriately to their needs

Human Trafficking UK offers recommendations befitting of these principles, but this is not law, and there is no binding guarantee that local councils will abide by them. Whilst charities such Unseen are leading the way by working towards building the country’s first safehouse they, like many other organisations offering necessary services to child victims, still subsist on voluntary contributions of time and money.

human trafficking

Whilst community leaders pore what little time and energy they have into saving lives, the question is: What exactly has the government been doing to secure the trust of trafficking victims?

Having a nation of fragmented services offered by volunteers is heartening, but having no universal guideline muddies the waters, and makes it harder for victims to get help.
Many studies evaluating the services offered to victims of any age conclude that the biggest barrier is, quite simply, a lack of knowledge on what help exists. This is a knowledge which both victims and the people responsible for them are lacking.

Shockingly, at the hands of our justice system, adult victims often meet a fate far worse than negligence. Our system not only fails to offer help to many victims – it also imprisons them. Currently, there is very little support for case workers and lawyers seeking to differentiate between the kind willing “illegal immigrants” and genuine victims. Although the proposed Human Trafficking bill mentions the need to “stop human trafficking from becoming an immigration issue” there still seems to be little guidance in place to achieve this.

recent survey by Cambridge University found that of a cross-section of 103 woman deemed to be illegal immigrants, 53 were being trafficked at the point of crossing the border, and five women who did enter the country with free will were later subjected to slave-like conditions.

Even more concerning is the fact that 75% of the trafficking victims were not directed towards the National Referral Mechanism, which exists to ensure victims do not slip through the net of asylum appeals. Yet, five years after its birth, only 1 in 4 trafficking victims are even recognised by the framework, let along passed on for legal or emotional support.

Worryingly, the article highlights the dilemma facing trafficked immigrants once they miss the NRM window:

In only one case of human trafficking of all those identified by researchers did victim disclosure result in police investigating the crimes perpetrated against them.

Although we are making some progress with the discussion of the Human Trafficking bill, there are still huge issues. The bill rightly states “victims should not be treated as criminals”, but the technicalities mostly focus on absolving victims of any work that their bosses force them to do (such as drug distribution or prostitution). This does not deal with the fact that many trafficking victims will be treated as criminals for simply being in the country without a passport.

So-called “illegal immigrants”, many of whom are victims of coercion, must spend an undisclosed amount of time in immigration detention centres. Then, when the ordeal is over, they will most likely be cut loose without support, or sent back to the same country where they are at increased danger of being re-trafficked. The bill does not seem to offer clear guidance when it comes to either deportation or rehabilitation.

Worst of all, as immigration removal centres struggle to house all asylum seekers at a time of budget cuts, trafficking victims and others may find themselves housed in prison alongside verified convicts. Using hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests, the charity Avid has found that there are currently 557 asylum seekers in prisons which are neither equipped nor intended to hold migrants (trafficked or otherwise).

Pentonville Prison Fails To Provide Basic Standards
Pentonville Prison, where 25 asylum seekers are currently held

These short-term fixes are just not good enough when it comes to stopping the second fastest growing crime of the 21st Century.

As it stands, Britain’s authorities have done very little to win the trust of human beings who are bought and sold. It’s time the government used new legislative opportunities to stop focussing on tougher prison sentences, and start prioritising the lives of victims.

Originally published on the Huffington Post.

RECIPE: Apple cinnamon sugar cookies


These are not just any vegan cookies, these are apple cinnamon sugar cookies.



– 1 1/4 cup flour
– 1/2 cup sugar
– Pinch baking soda
– 1/2 cup vegan butter (look for cheap brands like 99p sunflower spread vitalite)
– 2 tablespoons apple juice/water
– 1 teapsoon vanilla extract
(for icing)
– 1 apple
– 1 cup icing sugar
– three tablespoons apple juice

1. Cream together the butter and sugar. Add vanilla essence. Slowly sieve in the flour, along with the baking soda. Start to beat the mixture and add a tablespoon of apple juice at a time until the dough is soft but stiff: two is normally enough.
2. Roll cookie dough onto baking paper until it is the thickness of a one pound coin. Cut circles into the dough using a small glass (or proper cookie cutters if you use something other than a student kitchen)
3. Cook at 200 degrees, for about 10 minutes or until golden brown on the edges. Leave to cool.
4. While the cookies cool, prepare the icing sugar by mixing it with three tablespoons of apple juice, adding more juice or icing sugar until the consistency is spreadable but not runny. Spread the icing onto the cookies evenly and, as it sets, embed thin slithers of apple into the icing. Add a generous sprinkling of cinnamon on top as the icing sets and voila!

Has the Men’s Rights Movement gone too far?: Details of teenage protester leaked online

Last week, a group of students at the University of Toronto protested against a Men’s Rights Activist, Warren Farrel, from being given a platform by their university.
The event was set to be fairly minor and only a few tweets and a couple of posters acted as publicity for the protest. However, the protest didn’t go according to plan. It was no Poll Tax saga, but police turned up in order to forcibly remove the students from the entrance of the hall. The whole thing was caught on camera by Men’s Rights Activists, with the most “violent” moment consisting of one young woman out of a group of fairly calm students calling somebody “fucking scum”.  Hardly a bra-burning bonanza.

So, imagine my surprise when an online witch hunt aimed at one girl, who did nothing provocative during the event, began to unfurl.
The personal details of Emma Claire, a Canadian blogger and something of a friend of mine, were posted and scrutinised in the public eye by the website A Voice for Men. The writing attempted to answer the question on nobody’s lips: “Who is Emma Claire and why is she so hateful?” The article tries to “seal her legacy” so that “anyone who ever does an internet search on her name again will be aware of [her feminism]” the author states. The comment section indicates a consensus between the author and readers, with one of the top-rated comments saying:

“I wonder if she will ever be rejected for a job, and wonder if it was because this came up on a google search for her name? I wonder if in future years, she will regret the event she recorded her ‘legacy’ at.

I wonder, and I hope all of the above happen.” – Steve_85

Claire, 19, attended the rally and was later spotted in a photo by somebody from the website. After hunting down her old internet history, they discovered she had posted faecious tweets about the protest in its lead up. Apparantly, this is all the justification needed in order to publish her personal details online, all in the hope of scuppering future chances at a job.
Incriminating evidence included a couple of blatantly satirical tweets like: “Political position: kill all men, hail Satan” and a separate plea to friends and family to help her save up for a “Misandry” tattoo. I can neither confirm nor deny how fundraising is progressing.

Misandry tattoos are not a laughing matter, the article reiterates: “She at least entertains the idea of permanently marking her skin with that hatred, like a convict signaling gang affiliation”. A piece of Men’s Rights journalism displaying more comedic ignorance than any humourless feminist to date should be mildly amusing. Yet, the article has devastating repercussions.

According to the website, Emma Claire has now been added to “” an online register for “False accusers of rape, murderers, pedophiles, and rapists”.  Unfortunately for this satanic teenager, she was refused the opportunity to commit any of these crimes on tape, as she only appeared in the MRA’s video for a grand total of two seconds, doing nothing more than holding a banner next to friends.

Emma Claire, 19, attends protest only to have her personal details released online by Men's Rights Activists
(Left: Emma Claire, 19, holds banner at protest only to have her personal details released online by the website “A Voice for Men”)

The supposed expose of Emma Claire has revealed the dark side of internet vigilantism to counter one of the redeeming qualities of the online world: the prevailing existence of freedom of speech.

A Voice for Men has every right to call protesters whatever they feel like. They can dredge up old tweets by a 19-year-old girl only tenuously involved with the event in question. If they think it helps the brotherhood, they can even blatantly aim to harm the career prospects of a student picked at random, just because he or she has different beliefs. However, if they think they are still champions of free speech, they are wrong.
It is online vigilantism which will slowly draw moderates away from the art of protest, and that applies to those who support the MRA or Dworkin. If a young university student can simply stand next to a group of people and have her details leaked online, her face and full name added to a website containing lists of purported pedophiles and murderers, what hope is there of encouraging the most peaceful of people to protest? It is this vigilantism which will turn earnest protest by passionate people into the plaything of fringe extremists and an elite class who can be absolutely rest assured that their occupational fate won’t be harmed by attending a demonstration of any kind.
It is this kind of vigilantism which is adding stigma to protests and, in the internet age, it is the fear of losing any kind of career prospects which will lead to those normally peaceful protesters not protesting at all.
Nobody should be afraid of holding a banner for fear of feeling the wrath of online dissenters, and those who make would-be protesters feel this way are not champions of free speech, they are champions of fear tactics, and no group on the left or right can call itself a an ally to free speech whilst employing them.
Whatever one’s opinion of the Men’s Rights movement, this kind of behaviour is no different to the artless strategy employed by Red Watch: It should be denounced by anybody who believes in the right for people to protest without anxiety or apprehension.

Men's Rights Activists called Emma a "hateful bigot" before adding her to, an online list of alleged murderers, rapists, and pedophiles.
(Men’s Rights Activists called Emma a “hateful bigot” before adding her to, an online list of alleged murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. Photo from

I have emailed, the internet providers for the A Voice for Men website, in order to raise concerns about the legality of posting the details of Emma Claire. For the sake of future protesters who will be targeted for nothing more than holding a sign, I hope that others will do the same. Whether you are feminist, left-wing, or right-wing, I hope that those who believe in freedom of speech will do everything possible to start the fightback against online fear tactics.

(Thanks to for letting people know the email of the web provider and of course to Emma Claire herself for giving her permission for this article to be written).

Cutting housing benefit for the young is an attack on the family and the individual

David Cameron has outlined controversial plans to cut housing benefits for young people aged 18 – 25 in an attempt to lower the welfare budget and raise £1.8 billion.

The Daily Mail reports:

Let us not forget that this proposal finds its roots in populism and not social urgency.
Only 20% of social housing tenants are under the age of 35, and an even smaller percentage is made up of under 25s; it is clearly not a pressing matter and certainly not one which deserves centre stage at a time when the number of unemployed youths has increased eight-fold.

Nobody wants to live with their parents. Young adults, more than most, find the idea unsavoury as they should be embarking on new adulthood. But, for some, moving back in with parents is not simply an inconvenience: it is either too emotionally traumatic to do or impossible. As many as 1 in 7 young adults were “severely maltreated” by their parent or guardian before leaving home, according to research by the NSPCC, which doesn’t sit well with Cameron’s assumption that everybody can just grin and bear a few extra years at home. These young adults are not merely inconvenienced, but given a heartless ultimatum: Move back into a traumatic family environment or become homeless.

There is also a real possibility that parents will not accept their children back. Not every young person has good enough family relations to go back home, and this move could cause a damning increase in youth homelessness. Parents may also reject a young person from staying due to practicalities such as a lack of space. Houses are being built with increasingly small interiors and new housing regulation hasn’t been introduced to tackle this in years. A 2010 Shelter report called “Full House?” found that overcrowded housing caused 85% to suffer from “anxiety and depression”. It is cruel and lazy to force parents to put up with the adverse effects of stay-at-home kidults or face seeing their offspring homeless. It is one of the least progressive policies put forward by Cameron to date, as overcrowding remains an overwhelmingly working-class issue. Parents with larger estates will be able to coexist with their children much more easily than struggling parents in a down-sized flat. Applying a one-size fits all approach when parents have wildly different standards of living is irresponsible at best and reprehensible at worst.

The move is most contradicting in it’s attack on the cornerstone of Conservatism: the family. In 2010 it was found that 58% of 18 – 35 year olds living with mum and dad find it difficult to hold down a stable relationship. It’s no surprise that couples are getting married later and later, with the average groom being 37 and bride 34. This policy certainly doesn’t help the pro-marriage agenda being pushed by both front and backbenchers of the Conservative party.

In Cameron’s article, he cites a conversation he often has with those concerned about housing:

“A couple will say, ‘We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents,” he said.
“‘But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?’.

He’s right. Young couples should not have to wait as long as they do before their adult lives can begin. A report called The Human Cost revealed that 2.8 million people aged 18 – 44 are delaying having children and marriage because of the cost of housing.
However, Cameron neglects couples looking to move out of their parents house and instead actively makes life harder for those who do not.
Introducing a MIRAS-style housing scheme could reward people who work hard with the stability of homeownership but such a measure has not been discussed by Grant Shapps or David Cameron publicly as of yet. Cameron has not only failed to offer an alternative to young people who live with Mum and Dad; he is actively forcing others to do so for longer. Quelling common complaints by neglecting the young people who live with their parents and actively making life worse for those who do not is irresponsible beyond belief.

The effect of this measure on the future of the family far outweighs any popularity it will win the government. Appealing to populism is no crime in politics, as pleasing the public is all part of democracy. But when lazy solutions are applied to complicated situations, it is never in the national interest.

For more insight into the current difficulties facing our generation in terms of housing, joblessness, and crime, read Jilted Generation by Shiv Malik and Ed Howker

Hansard Society dismisses £8000 scholarship charge

Hansard Society has continued to generate widespread concern online over the charity’s decision to charge students for access to internships within parliament.

The Hansard Society, which regards itself as “The UK’s leading political research and education charity” has among its supporters; BBC Parliament, the Cabinet Office, Speaker of the House, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Microsoft, Ministry of Justice, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons.

The underfire organisation earlier published a press release to defend their stance on the charge for their scholarship programe:

The cost for this 11-week academic programme includes all academic tuition and student fees, accommodation in central London and unlimited travel by tube and bus in central London, plus visits to the devolved legislatures and many other activities. The Hansard Society is accredited by the British Accreditation Council and is a Member of StudyUK Further information about this programme is available on our website”

What Hansard Society’s statement fails to address is that undergraduates cannot access internships at the House of Commons or Lords outside of their scholarship. Therefore, the opportunity of a work placement with Parliament is completely dependent on an £8000 payment to their charity.
There is currently no internship available at BBC Parliament, The House of Commons, or House of Lords, which can be accessed by those who cannot afford the Hansard Society’s £8000 course.

The press statement names all of the benefits of paying for the study programme, implying that the internship is a small element of what a varied scholarship. However, they clearly see the internship as the biggest pulling factor, as the Hansard Society representatives I talked to used the term “internship” and “scholarship” interchangeably when talking about the opportunity.
The Hansard Society website boasts about:

a long tradition of supporting interns in the beginning or further developing their political careers. Many that have worked for us have gone on to distinguished careers in a variety of sectors and organisations including the civil service and Parliament, public affairs consultancies, NGOs and charities, the media and some have attained permanent positions within the Hansard Society”

The educational element of the course is what you pay for, but the internship provides the direct path in to distinguished careers.
As their website proudly claims, the Hansard Society’s internship is a fast lane to prestigious professions; it is invaluable only to those who can afford it.

The charity does not provide political placements for those who haven’t the financial means to take part in their programme. The definition of “scholarship” is “a grant of financial aid awarded to a student, as for the purpose of attending a college”. Hansard Society’s definition is very different.

Whilst the nature of the internship is true to this definition, in that it provides opportunity,  its expensive programme fails to merit the status of what is already a contentious scheme. The Hansard Society internship does not exist without the scholarship, and the scholarship is not available without an £8000. This opportunity has the benefits of an internship, but misses the criteria by actually costing participants £2000 more than the average undergraduate spends on rent, food, and living costs in a year.

Both scholarships and internships are forms of social mobility which exist to help gifted young people, indiscriminate of background. The Hansard Society’s placement does not achieve these goals.