It should have been Ralph’s week, with the play inspired by his life opening at our theatre in King’s Cross, performed by his ex-offender peers. Instead Ralph is lost, somewhere in the trackless wastes of underworld England, on the run from the police again. I don’t know what happened, but they want him for a new offence and he simply doesn’t trust the system to give him a fair hearing.
Ralph is an illegal immigrant. We met him shortly after his release from prison two years ago. He already had two children by British girls, which meant he wasn’t immediately deported. In reality, if not in law, he is no more Nigeria’s child than Britain’s – born in Rwanda, a child refugee, he grew up a streetkid in Lagos until he saved enough money, aged 15, to buy a fake passport and a ticket to London. He is rootless, stateless, and now almost friendless – except for us, and we don’t know where he is.
Ralph’s re-offending, if that is what has happened, is a sad instance of the common theme for ex-prisoners – except it’s not so common for us. Independent research out next week shows that our charity, Only Connect, more than halves the national re-offending rate, from two thirds to a third of ex-prisoners. And we do this primarily through arts projects, especially theatre, which engages the most chaotic and prolific offenders in a way that more prosaic projects – vocational training, for instance – simply cannot.
Art makes demands of you; it requires you to work in a team; to take direction from authority; to inhabit roles; to work to a deadline; to make yourself vulnerable; and it delivers what each of us desperately needs, the affirmation and applause of others. It is, paradoxically, the best introduction to the world of work and responsibility you can get.
Both the last government and this one have shown an almost willful blindness to the effectiveness of arts projects in reducing re-offending, running before the wrath of the tabloid papers which scream with horror the thought of criminals doing anything enjoyable. Jack Straw, as Justice Secretary, effectively banned the arts from prisons. When Crispin Blunt, the coalition’s sensible prisons minister, rescinded the ban last year, No 10 had a fit of the vapours and reimposed it.
Certain Conservatives feel it consistent with their philosophy to condemn everything but the most obvious, ‘common sense’ course. Tories take a mulish pleasure in deliberate stupidity; it is, somehow, our form of sophistication. And yet the challenge of turning a life around demands more of us than kneejerks, and greater bravery than you need to deprive a prisoner of pleasure. If ‘tough on crime’ Tories were really tough, they’d face down the tabloids and put the arts at the centre of prison life.
His Teeth, inspired by Ralph Ojotu, is showing at the Only Connect Theatre in King's Cross until 12 November. For more details see oclondon.org.