Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

STEVEN ELLIS (West Yorkshire Probation Trust)

STEVEN ELLIS (West Yorkshire Probation Trust)

AWARD WINNER 2012-13: Steven is a volunteer with the charity DISC. A former prisoner, he runs art classes and provides peer-mentoring support for people with drug problems, including in HMP Everthorpe (where he served), aimed at aiding their recovery from addiction. He is described in his nomination as “exceptional and truly inspirational” and “by far the most committed, enthusiastic and motivated individual I have had the pleasure of working with”. (This Award is supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust).

Steven Ellis, a Volunteer with DISC (Developing Initiatives Supporting Communities) at the West Yorkshire Probation Trust, has won a Butler Trust Award for contributions to the treatment and care of offenders with substance misuse problems.

Steven runs a highly popular weekly art group for people in recovery from substance misuse, many of whom have come from prison, where Steven himself first studied art. ‘Many people think art doesn’t have a place because it’s not core curriculum, that it doesn’t benefit people, but that’s absolute nonsense’, he tells Inspire. ‘Having studied art in prison myself, it was a way out for me and I’d have been lost without it. It helped me to beat my heroin addiction, to be honest. I saw what it was doing for the guys in jail and that stuck with me. I thought, “why can’t it help other people?”’

Steven has given enormous amounts of his time to DISC and its service users. As well as running the art group – often way beyond the scheduled finishing time – he devises six-week lesson plans, secures funding, hosts information sessions and actively promotes a range of services.

He’s also studying for a BA in fine art, having completed a two year course at Leeds College of Art on his release. He contacted the Art Tutors at HMP Everthorpe to find out how feasible it would be for him to go back as a Tutor himself, hoping that he could open a channel of communication between community art groups and the prison to create a referral pathway. After getting approval from the prison authorities he gave a well received presentation to prisoners, featuring work that he had completed there, at college and at his recovery group. How did it feel going back to do that? ‘It was a bit surreal,’ he says. ‘There were about 40 guys, and some had been there when I was there, so it was strange speaking to them in a professional context. But it  was great that the prison security gave it the nod in the first place, because my criminal life hadn’t actually been finished long.’

Steven is able to signpost people on to further education, into DISC or to other services and organisations. ‘That was my idea from the start. We’ve actually just had someone gain a place at Leeds College of Art, so the proof’s in the pudding. It’s extremely humbling because it was only two and a half years ago that one of the Tutors at Everthorpe wrote me a reference for the course, and here I am writing someone else a reference. For art as a vehicle to do that is fantastic.

’The course also helps to build service users’ confidence and self-esteem, and numbers have been growing since it began, with around a quarter so far going into further education, employment or peer mentoring. Steven managed to secure an initial six months of funding from DISC, who were so impressed that they’ve continued funding ever since. ‘It’s not an expensive thing to run – the materials last a long time, it’s good value for money, and if volunteers are running it then the reward to cost ratio is excellent, really,’ he says. ‘It’s been really rewarding and very successful.’

As well as allowing participants to build up a portfolio of work that could help them into further education, the course can also act as a valuable diversion from substance use or offending behaviour, and many use art to open up and tell their stories, acting as a form of therapy. ‘For those few hours I never once thought about drugs,’ said one service user in the group. ‘Normally that’s all I think about.’

‘A lot of the guys have a genuine interest, and they’re there waiting for me half an hour before it starts,’ says Steven. ‘It starts becoming part of their lives – they’re approaching the end of their treatment, and they’ve got this genuine interest. It’s about recovery – it’s the recovery that’s important, and then getting the group together. Almost the least important thing is the art – that could be replaced with something else.’

Those who have seen Steven in action comment on how he inspires and holds the imagination of the class, and how service users clearly look up to him. He has also made presentations about the group to commissioners and others at recovery events, as well as promoting the course in the trade press and on TV. ‘I see it work in jail – no other subject works the way art does,’ he stresses. ‘The art environment is selfpolicing – there was never any violence in the two years I was there, but if you go on the wings there’s three or fights a day. If you can get that sense of achievement – and people looking forward to going there – if you can get that kind of feeling in a prison, then you’re really on to something, aren’t you?’

The aim now is for group members to become mentors and volunteers themselves, so that the project can become selfperpetuating. ‘They could facilitate these groups themselves – it would be great. We’ve now got degreelevel students volunteering as well – I’ve just interviewed eight people from Leeds College of Art – and if we can get a steady stream of them coming in and guiding service users as well, it will help it selffuel. I get emails all the time – people are basing their dissertations on art therapy and social inclusion and asking if they can get involved. It’s fantastic.’

Winning a Butler Trust Award is ‘brilliant, on many fronts,’ he says. ‘First and foremost it’s promoting recovery. The award rubberstamps what we’re doing and helps to make people aware that everyone needs help from time to time, and people do change. I’m not unique – I see people moving forward on a weekly basis. I’ve been given my life back – nothing’s ever going to compare to that. I wake up in the morning and the day’s mine. I’m just trying to give that back to other people.’

• Steven Ellis’s award was supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

For more information: contact West Yorkshire Probation Trust; Probation Service

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