by Dr Michael Naughton, Reader in Sociology and Law (University of Bristol Law School and School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS))
The purpose of this article is to formally launch the Innocence Art project under the auspices of Empowering the Innocent (ETI). In so doing, it charts the origins of the concept ‘innocence art’ and how it relates to ‘the art of innocence’, a dedicated approach to producing counter discourse through forms of innocence art to challenge the dominant discourses and existing criminal justice system arrangements in relation to false allegations, wrongful convictions and wrongful imprisonment. It concludes with a call to those affected by false allegations, wrongful convictions or wrongful imprisonment, whether direct or secondary victims, to participate in the art of innocence by submitting forms of innocence art, whether images of paintings, drawings or photographs, poems, stories or other literary works, to feature on Empowering the Innocent (ETI) websites as deemed appropriate.
The origins of the concept of ‘innocence art’
It was 20 years ago that I first conceived something distinctive about the art works of alleged innocent victims of wrongful conviction and/or imprisonment. It was whilst I was at the home of Nick Tucker’s then girlfriend, now wife, Jenny Peacock in Thetford, Norfolk, on the evening before a press conference in his local village to try to raise awareness of his continued incarceration. He had been convicted for the murder of his wife, Carol, which most likely did not occur. It hit me as soon as I walked into the living room and was confronted by an array of very large, arguably oversized, paintings, which almost entirely covered the available wall space.
What struck me immediately was that all of the paintings had an intense presence that couldn’t be avoided; they compelled my attention and provoked a reaction that I hadn’t previously experienced in response to paintings. It was an emotional reaction like when a piece of music catches you off guard and you really feel it and it causes you to cry for no foreseeable reason or when a movie has the same effect. The subject of the paintings was African animals, lions, elephants, tigers, and so on, set in their natural habitats, with all expressing magnificence and majesty, powerfulness and freedom.
I asked Jenny who painted the paintings and she said that they were Nick’s and that he didn’t even know that he could paint before he was imprisoned. I coined the term ‘innocence art’ to describe Nick Tucker’s paintings, which I interpreted as expressing how he felt about his alleged wrongful conviction and imprisonment; his defiance at his incarceration; his unwillingness to give up his innocence stance; and, as a form of protest which demonstrated his refusal to comply with the demands of the prison and parole regimes and admit to a crime that he did not commit.
It is important to distinguish innocence art from conventional prisoner art, which I would describe, generally, as bleak, sorrowful, regretful and apologetic. I don’t know if such work is a performative demonstration to show those with power and control over them that they are complying with the regimes associated with incarceration or a genuine sign of their remorse for the crimes that they have committed. By comparison, however, innocence art is unashamedly defiant, bold, fearless and unyielding. It is certainly not about playing the game, nor compliance with an inhumane system that refuses to concede or admit that victims are routinely and mundanely wrongly convicted in our imperfect and all too human criminal justice system. On the contrary, innocence art openly challenges the forces of power being exerted over and upon victims of false allegations and wrongful convictions. It stands as an overt form of counter discourse and form of resistance to those forces.
Over the years since, I have spoken with innocence organisation colleagues, both domestically and internationally, about my thoughts on the distinctiveness of innocence art and how it acts as a unique form of counter discourse to the way that prisoners maintaining innocence or alleged innocent victims of wrongful convictions are treated; how they are expected to accept their wrongful convictions and comply with the dictates of the systems that deal with them that work on the basis that they committed the crimes that they were convicted of, whether that be the prison, parole or probation systems.
One such conversation inspired the ‘Illustrated Truth: Expressions of Wrongful Conviction’ art exhibition at the Innocence Network Annual conference in Ohio in 2011, which kicked off with the first-ever art exhibit featuring the work of exonerees and those still maintaining their innocence in prison. This involved thirty (30) exonerees in the United States exhibiting artwork, poetry, photos, letters, and other literary works at Ohio’s Freedom Center.
I have also discussed possible innocence art exhibitions in the UK with several different organisations and individuals over the years, which has not as yet led to anything concrete. Things look like they may be about to change, however, since I starting working with Sean Bw Parker when he took on the role of Editor for False Allegations Watch (FAW) who epitomises an innocence art subjectivity, even though he had not heard of the concept. The range of his outputs that fall within an innocence art framework includes a series of paintings and drawings that he produced during his four and a half years spent as a prisoner maintaining innocence at HMP Dartmoor and HMP Leyhill; a soon-to-be published book containing one hundred (100) of his observational poems that he wrote whilst incarcerated; a number of plays that he has written; and, a significant body of articles and blogposts that he has written and interviews and podcasts that he has given or conducted on the subject of false allegations and wrongful conviction and imprisonment since his release.
From innocence art to the art of innocence
It is in this sense that Sean practices what I term ‘the art of innocence’ in his use of a number of different mediums and formats to communicate, critically, on false allegations and wrongful conviction and imprisonment, which is something that I have been personally committed to myself over the last two decades. In terms of my own innocence art outputs, they include books, journal and newspaper articles, reports to official governmental inquiries, conference papers, videos, podcasts, poetry, TV appearances, radio interviews and song lyrics.
The art of innocence, then, is a dedicated form of social and legal critique that seeks to engage different audiences with a range of different tactics and techniques with the overall aim of changing how they think about false allegations, wrongful convictions and wrongful imprisonment. It is a form of political resistance aimed at social and legal transformation because, crucially, how we think shapes how we act and the forms of legislation and policies that we consent to which govern how the criminal justice system operates in this area.
To put it another way, the art of innocence is an overt strategy to challenge the dominant discourses on false allegations, wrongful convictions and wrongful imprisonment in the realm of criminal justice system through the production of forms of counter discourse using a variety of innocence art tools or methods.
Moreover, to adopt an art of innocence approach is a political activity that recognises, explicitly, the ongoing battle between the dominant discourses that produce the existing ways of thinking and acting in response to allegations of criminal offending and its counter discursive oppositional forces that challenge the prevailing criminal justice system and cultural hegemonies.
The underpinning aim of the art of innocence is to try to invoke in the audience, whether a viewer, reader or listener, a sense of empathy with the plight of those affected by false allegations, wrongful convictions and/or wrongful imprisonment, whether direct victims or the families and loved ones of direct victims; to try to get them to start to see the phenomenon of false allegations and wrongful conviction and/or imprisonment differently on the level of a shared humanity.
The central feature of an art of innocence approach is that it intentionally seeks to change the minds and emotions of the general public as a precursor to widespread reforms to protect innocent victims from false allegations and wrongful convictions or to bring about mechanisms to overturn and redress false allegations and wrongful convictions when they occur.
Just as art works can be used in the manufacture of the dominant values of society and for propaganda purposes, an innocence art approach recognises that they can also be harnessed to make connections between individuals who see and understand one another at the level of shared human emotions and experiences; at the level of the human condition.
This gets to the kernel of what I think ‘art’ is and what it isn’t. Indeed, much that is claimed to be art is mere decoration, just as much of what is claimed to be a safeguard against the potential or real injustices that derive from the existing criminal justice system arrangements is couched is such a way that it has no effect in challenging the current system at all. Think, for example, of criminal lawyers who sit meekly by as they watch their clients get wrongly convicted; or criminal appeal lawyers who work within the confines of a criminal appeals system that can, and does, fail innocent appellants who say and do nothing.
It is in this sense that I say that art, generally, and innocence art, specifically, is only art if it at least tries to change how the audience thinks; to challenge conventional ways of thinking about the subject matter at hand, for instance on such things as false allegations, wrongful convictions and wrongful imprisonment to stay with the topic of this article.
Innocence art, then, is a means of expressing our deepest emotions and feelings that gets to the core of the human condition. It is a way of communicating with one another through a variety of forms of self-expression that act as forms of social critique and political resistance.
By way of a conclusion, we invite those who relate to the concepts of ‘innocence art’ and ‘the art of innocence’ to join with us in a collaborative union of counter discourse by submitting any art works that you have produced in response to the issues of false allegations, wrongful convictions and/or wrongful imprisonment.
This invitation includes direct victims and also secondary victims in the form of family members, loved ones and friends of victims of false allegations and wrongful conviction and/or imprisonment who have been moved or inspired by the experience to write poems or song lyrics; to paint pictures or produce drawings; to write stories or articles; or, to make films, to send them or images of them to be displayed on Empowering the Innocent (ETI) websites as deemed appropriate.
We are also not restricting the call for innocence art to the UK and welcome submissions from anywhere in the world affected by false allegations, wrongful convictions and wrongful imprisonment.
Depending on the response, we may make a dedicated website for the Innocence Art project and move closer to an exhibition of innocence art in the UK.
The email address to send your innocence art to or to write to if you have any queries or require further information is:
We look forward to hearing from you and viewing, reading or listening to your innocence art!