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Friday 12 February 2021

This Small Change: postcards in prison

This Small Change - a project I'm running with the Prisoners' Education Trust in the UK - is asking museums and galleries to offer printed material to prisoners, to help alleviate the extreme conditions prisoners are facing during Covid 19 lockdowns. I've been a bit quiet on this blog for a while, so I thought it would be good to make amends by documenting the project here. I hope you're well. Gx

Three of the handwritten cards sent with the first delivery from Tate.

"The idea of gold"

In March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, a housemate working in a mental health unit was finding it tough going. The consequences of the lockdown for his patients were becoming severe: among other restrictions, patients were no longer allowed out of the facility, even on accompanied trips. The only accessible external space was a small enclosed garden. As well as keeping everyone safe, staff were under pressure to think of more indoor activities. 

Rooting round the house, we put together a pack of art gallery postcards, including those of works by Rodin, Lubaina Himid, Christina Broom and David Hockney. The next day, my housemate offered them as a gift to patients. While not all the patients appreciated them, a couple really did: they wrote a series of cards to their families who could no longer visit.

Encouraged by the response, I contacted Francesca Cooney, Head of Policy at the Prisoners' Education Trust, to see if something similar would be of interest to people in prisons. Francesca thought it would be worth giving it a try. She explained prisoners were in their cells nearly all day; libraries and gyms had been closed; and all visits cancelled. Alarmingly, there were also reports of more incidents of self harm. 

Together, we devised a scheme to see if museums - themselves closed to the public during lockdowns - could send stocks of gift shop postcards to prison education teams. The hope was that the postcards would be of interest to prisoners in their cells. Given the quality of cards from museums, we felt there was a fair chance this would be the case. As the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard argues, while postcards may be art's "small change", "this small change sometimes suggests the idea of gold".

"I never felt so proud to write to my son. A proper postcard." 

Thanks to the efforts of many people across a number of institutions, the pilot scheme - between HMP Pentonville, Tate and the Postal Museum - was a great success. 

Tate's Distribution Manager, Keith McCubbin, with the first box of postcards.

Despite the challenges of remote working, we were able to distribute 100 'packs' of cards to prisoners. Each pack included a handwritten card explaining the project, a selection of cards from the Tate, and some first class stamps donated by the Postal Museum. 

We were especially grateful to José Aguiar, a prisons education consultant, who worked with men in HMP Pentonville to put the packs together and to distribute them to other prisoners. The different elements of the pack had to be sent into the prison separately and collated by José and his team. We also needed special permission from the governors of HM Pentonville to include stamps in the packs.

José said the men were really impressed with the postcards, commenting that it is rare for prisoners to see anything as beautiful and of such quality as the Tate cards. One of the men said it was the first time he had been proud to write to his son while in prison. For him the Tate card was "a proper postcard". Another said the postcards became "a window" to his family. 

Since the first delivery, we've managed to deliver more cards from the Tate, as well as packs from the Garden Museum and the London Transport Museum. We'll be continuing the scheme this year. On my next post, I'll include a few of the stories the cards have inspired, written by men in HMP Pentonville. 

In the meantime, if you know of anyone who works in museums and who is able to access spare or old stocks of postcards, please get in touch.

The packs being assembled at HMP Pentonville by men serving time there.
Photograph by José Aguiar.