The pent-up fury and impotence that Iraq war veteran Jay Bell felt when he found himself back on Civvy Street could easily have landed him in prison, had it not been for a Liverpool-based digital art project aimed at ex-servicemen doing time.
The 30-year-old ex boxer, who served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers from 2004 to 2009, highlights his training to “kill for a living”, to underline his astonishment at the way the slide of his life into chaos has been reversed by art. He observed the same effect on prisoners he worked with at HMP Altcourse and HMP Liverpool, as a volunteer on a project with Fact – the Liverpool-based media, film and digital art centre.
Bell only came to Fact under protest as a one-off to support a fellow ex-combatant. But since leaving the army, he has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, the loss of his home and a relationship, and six years of being unable to hold down a job because of his destructive behaviour. Through working in ideas, shapes and performance he feels less tortured by memories of past horrors, and has a part-time job with Fact. Most of all, he has hope.
“Art is like the reverse of a trigger,” says Bell. “I thought it was a load of arse when I first started, but after trying it and learning a little about why it works, I’ve had my eyes well and truly wiped. It has been a liberation – helping me to visualise new ways of handling what is going on in my current life, without words.”
He ended up as a key member of Fact’s pilot project, masterminded by communities manager Emily Gee, which involved artists David Blandy and Larry Achiampong working with prisoners weekly for six sessions to produce a film called FF Gaiden. It used the world created by game Grand Theft Auto V to play out a series of personal testimonies, including family perspectives.
Gee launched the project four years ago, because there was nothing for veterans in Liverpool. An early project with veteran artist Stuart Griffiths paved the way for this one. She says: “The transition from the army into civilian life is a trauma, with many layers of complexity.”
There has been fierce controversy about the numbers of veterans in prison; the Ministry of Defence says they make up 3.5% of prisoner population, while the National Association of Prison Officers says 9%, and one pilot study put the figure as high as 16.75% (pdf). The problem is particularly acute in Merseyside, where army recruitment is high because of unemployment and deprivation. When discharged, many veterans feel lost without the structure of the army, and turn to drink and drugs.
Gee sees the link between crime and a disappointment in the UK to which veterans return. She says: “The public rhetoric around veterans in prison does not relate much to the experience of the individual veteran transitioning into civilian life. They are at the same time a hero, a tragic figure but also a criminal.”
In a recently-finished project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Gee worked on prisoner veterans’ sense of identity. Each week the FACT team would negotiate lengthy security checks to bring PlayStations into the category B prisons. The games (with violent content removed) formed a virtual world canvas on which this group of inmates could explore their own traumatic experiences. Their input became a piece of art in its own right, which was screened at Fact. One prisoner at HMP Altcourse said: “I did not know that this project would click so well with me. The ideas behind it were so true to how I felt.”
The effectiveness of this Veterans in Practice programme has astonished prison staff. Following the six weekly sessions, prisoners were better behaved, expressed feelings of self worth and were more prepared to participate in other activities to improve their rehabilitation. As a result, the Armed Forces Covenant Fund has been awarded to Fact funding to work with prisoner veterans in HMP Altcourse and Liverpool (and with their families) for a further six months.
The Ministry of Justice has announced that from January 2015, every prisoner coming into custody will be asked if they have been a member of the armed forces. Keith McDonnell, gym manager at HMP Altcourse, hopes the longer term programme will produce works which demystify veterans and will lead to better understanding of veterans by professionals within the criminal justice system.
Liverpool is now at the cutting-edge nationally when it comes to supporting veterans. Ex-veteran Bob Blanchard led the way by establishing the Liverpool Veterans Project to provide holistic support for those leaving the forces. Both Liverpool and Everton football clubs have schemes, and Liverpool city council has set up a Making it Happen group for veterans, covering all areas of care including housing and employment.
And a recent conference at Liverpool John Moores University on 10 June looked at better ways of serving the ex-service prison population. As organiser Emma Murray, a lecturer in criminal justice, says: “Fact’s work raises many questions about whether we need to manage military veterans differently in prison – after all, they have lived and seen things that other prisoners have not.”
- Images shown in this article are from FF Gaiden: Control (2016), by Larry Achiampong and David Blandy with Matt Buckley, Gordon Harding, Adam Rushton, Mark Towell, Susan Wardle, Lindsay Wallace. Commissioned and produced by Fact, supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation. With thanks HMP Altcourse, Keith McDonnell, Tony Connolly and the HMP Altcourse gym team, HMP Liverpool and Partners of Prisoners.