When Edmund Clark was first given a set of keys to work inside HM Prison Grendon, he hated it. 

“To begin with I was quite difficult about that, having to be a . . . what-do-they-call-it? A screw? A turnkey?” The award-winning artist has spent years working on projects about incarceration and control but, as Grendon’s artist-in-residence, he spent an intense two or more days a week on the inside, beginning in 2014. There he made his own work in response to the prison environment, and facilitated art made by the men as part of their intensive psychotherapy and rehabilitation. 

Grendon, about an hour outside London, is the only prison in the UK whose primary purpose is the rehabilitation of serious, hardened criminals. Inmates must apply from elsewhere in the prison system and be assessed to see if they are ready for a regime of daily psychotherapy, with art and drama as therapeutic tools, and a democratic set-up where inmates monitor each other. They vote on matters that extend even to choosing which prisoners can live on their wing, and are encouraged to take responsibility for their past crimes, current behaviour and a potential future beyond the prison walls.

Most UK prisons suffer from overcrowding — the population has doubled to more than 85,000 since the early 1990s — and there is now an epidemic of violence, drug use and self-harm, with staffing levels and morale low among both inmates and officers. Grendon, meanwhile, is hailed for its comparatively low reoffending rates (academic research found that a stay in Grendon of 18 months or more cut reconviction levels by 25 per cent). Frances Crook, the veteran penal reformer and chief executive of the Howard League, describes it as “the only successful prison in the country”.

Pamela Dow, a former senior Whitehall strategist on prison policy and a rehabilitation expert, says Grendon is best understood as “a community of learning” and, sadly, “an island” surrounded by an otherwise creaking system. It attracts international acclaim for its ability to offer hope to “the most damaged people”. Most of the inmates, all male, have a violent past, many have been found guilty of sexual assaults, and they often have to confront, during therapy, abuse they themselves have suffered.

Stills of the prison from Clark’s video installation © Edmund Clark/ Flowers Gallery

Being embedded in this unique institution has been, for Clark, productive and exhausting. He has produced an arresting body of work — photographs, installations, a multiscreen film and an artist’s book — that aims to force a few in the unwilling outside world to notice the invisible population behind bars.

His three years as visiting artist have given him a taste of the prisoners’ psychotherapy regime, the role of the creative process in their rehabilitation, and insights — not always welcome — into the roles of both jailer and jailed. “You are constantly opening and shutting doors and barred gates the whole time,” he says. “The noise of it! It’s a cliché, I thought about recording it but no one would believe it . . . I took a counter in, there were about 200 key turns a day.” He became paranoid, he says, about leaving a gate unlocked and would regularly walk back along corridors to check and double check. 

Now that his residency is approaching its end, Clark is deep in preparations for In Place of Hate, an exhibition at the Ikon gallery in Birmingham of the work made at and about Grendon.

One of the photographs of an inmate made with a pinhole camera © Edmund Clark

He found the level of security at the prison “massively oppressive” and the memory calls forth a rare display of anger during our quiet conversation in a dingy west London café near his home. On a laptop, we look through layouts for the gallery catalogue and for his own artist’s book, in which the silhouettes of dried flowers, backlit and hugely enlarged, are juxtaposed with the prison grounds, corridors, group therapy rooms, cells and photographs of the inmates and some officers. 

The photographs were produced under specific constraints. No prisoner can be recognisable from the images for security reasons, to protect their victims and the prisoners themselves if they are released, so Clark devised a process of capturing a shape and an impression through a pinhole camera while the subject was talking about his experiences. 

The blurred black-and-white, head-and-shoulder images are disconcerting, and some are quite frightening. The flowers, a mix of weeds and garden varieties grown by the men, were picked and then pressed between layers of paper towels from the prison bathrooms. Some display a slight bloom of mould. Others are fragile and skeletal. “Put them on a light box and you can see every vein, every blemish,” he says. Both the photographs and flowers have a look of the Victorian era — that great age of incarceration and, in response, of prison reform. 

Flowers picked inside HM Prison Grendon and pressed by Edmund Clark © Edmund Clark/ Flowers Gallery

The book’s pale green paper has been chosen to match the colour of the prison-issue bedsheets — evoking the moment at 7.15 every evening when, after hours of intense group therapy and the close-quarters interaction of prison life, the men are put into “hard lock-up” in the cells. 

“Suddenly, you are being left alone with your thoughts to process it,” Clark explains, reminding me that about half of the Grendon inmates — “fragile, difficult, damaged people” — have attempted suicide at some point in their previous lives and, in therapy, are being asked to go back to formative experiences where they were often victims of violence or sexual assault themselves.

“I’m not going to say we should all feel sorry for them, they have committed appalling crimes, but a degree of understanding . . . ” He leaves the sentence hanging, adding later: “There is a constant undercurrent of intensity and trauma.”

Pressed plants; Clark’s photograph of a building at Grendon © Edmund Clark/ Flowers Gallery

Clark has long been attracted to almost impossibly concealed and difficult subjects, many of them on the fringes of the criminal justice system. Previous projects include photographic essays about the US detention camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, about CIA “ black sites” and rendition routes, and a portrait of a suburban house in which a terrorist suspect was being held under the severe restrictions of an anti-terrorist control order.

“It’s a challenge trying to make work about this kind of place . . . It does certainly strip away a lot of the inessential in terms of what you think is important and what it is you think you need to explore, and then the visual and other forms of strategy you use to do that.” 

In those earlier projects, the absent human figures, both of jailer and prisoner, detainee and security-service personnel, are like a deafening visual silence. But the Grendon work is peopled by the shadowy photographs that represent the prisoners and a few of the staff. Locked in for hours at a time with the men, and forced into their intense and emotionally charged routine, Clark had to find a way, this time, to include and represent the humans at the heart of any story about incarceration: he became involved with their process of coming to terms with what they had done. When they saw Clark’s first experiments, the men who took part spoke of seeing “shades, presences” — one described it as “my shadow’s reflection”, which Clark has taken for the title of his book.

Pressed flowers and a photograph of a prison building by Clark © Edmund Clark/ Flowers Galley

“Some people didn’t want anything to do with it,” he admits, but others were interested in the overlap with their own creative efforts in the art therapy practised in Grendon. And the theme he wanted to explore — the extent to which these individuals are invisible to the rest of us, hidden from society while simultaneously being constantly under supervision — resonated with the inmates.

“Our perception of them as humans stops at the prison wall as they go in — they literally become shadows,” Clark observes. Prisoners are, indeed, a marginal group, rarely considered, never included in society’s wider decisions and largely deprived of autonomy as well as their liberty — which is why the internal democracy of Grendon, designed to foster personal and mutual responsibility, interests policymakers. Recent moves in the prison system as a whole — depriving prisoners of the right to smoke, for example — tend to be in the other direction, infantilising adults and making them even less able to thrive on release.

A pinhole photograph and pressed flowers © Edmund Clark/ Flowers Gallery

When not being ignored completely, prisoners are seen as monsters, Clark observes. For all the celebration of Grendon’s results and enlightened regime, its inhabitants are extreme cases. “That’s what I thought these images were perpetuating when I first made them,” says Clark. “I thought, ‘They are ghostly and they are monstrous.’” For a while he thought of abandoning the photographs completely. But then the responses of the men to their own images seemed interesting — about a dozen have made their own artwork from prints of the photographs, which will be included in the exhibition and the catalogue. Their verbal reactions (some featured on these pages) are extraordinary and painful to read: “No wonder people look at me weird — is this how they see me??! I look like the White Orc from The Hobbit or some sort of f***in’ phantom.”

The word “political” is hard to avoid in relation to Clark’s affinity for making art about incarceration, criminal justice and security enforcement, as he admits. But he has little interest in making it too explicit. “It’s tricky,” he says, weighing it up. “Work that is overtly political, overtly activist often doesn’t work for me, doesn’t engage me. I know exactly what I’m supposed to think. Work that makes me curious — that works for me personally.

An inmate’s creative response to a photograph of himself made with Clark © Edmund Clark

“The art side of it, the form, why I’ve done it this way, is as important for me as the subject and the social aspect,” he says during a discussion of his views on the prison system. On another occasion, he is at pains to explain: this is “not documentary”, it is a response to a very particular environment and to the Grendon inmates’ extreme, intense process of trying to heal their open psychological wounds while constantly monitoring and being monitored by each other, as well as by the psychotherapists and the guards.

He also rejects the word collaboration, as implying a degree of equality between himself and the prisoners, “as though everyone’s happy-clappy and it’s all great . . . I have tried to work with them, I’ve got involved with them and with the prison.” But, he adds: “There is an imbalance in the relationship,” and a few seconds later, “There is clearly an element of exploitation here.”

A community room at Grendon © Edmund Clark/ Flowers Gallery

As he packs up so he can return to planning the exhibition, Clark explains why it seemed important to make such a beautiful object — the book — alongside the other, more confrontational and contemporary images being displayed in the exhibition, such as video installations of the endless clanking corridors and confined spaces of the interior and the grounds.

“I want to make something beautiful out of this, because it is unexpected, seeing it in a different way, I want to make people reconfigure what they see,” he says as we prepare to leave. Will they, I wonder, want to see such darkness made visible? Because the theme of the shadow, the mysterious silhouettes on a prison wall, has another wider meaning — the suppressed societal dysfunction that we would rather ignore, particularly the addiction, the abuse, the violence and mental-health issues that afflict so many criminals and so many others outside the prison walls too.

An inmate’s response to his photograph © Edmund Clark

Mainstream prisons, as Frances Crook tells me, do not tackle these underlying problems successfully. With a few honourable exceptions, and in spite of a recent government emphasis on rehabilitation (hard to achieve during a period of cuts to spending, falling staff ratios and a public appetite for tough sentencing), they are being used as warehouses. The wings have become, says Dow, “hellish” for inmates and staff. According to Crook, Grendon is successful because it does “the exact opposite of all the others. [These prisons] fail the public, they fail the victims, they fail the prisoners and they fail the staff.”

When faced with even the idea of what is bottled up out of sight behind the prison walls, as Clark observes, “it’s easier to pretend it’s not there”. 

Edmund Clark’s exhibition, ‘In Place of Hate’, is at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, December 6 2017-March 11 2018. It is accompanied by a gallery catalogue and an artist’s book, ‘My Shadow’s Reflection’, co-published by Ikon Gallery and Here Press; ikon-gallery.orgherepress.org

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Photographs: Edmund Clark/ Flowers Gallery

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