Unlock the talent inside

Since 1962 the Koestler Awards have played a unique, national role in motivating prisoners, secure hospital patients and immigration detainees to take part in the arts. The awards are simple and powerful – we reward achievement, build self-confidence and broaden horizons for some of society’s most disadvantaged and marginalised people.

Our work harnesses the uniquely transformative power of the arts to help individuals learn the skills and gain the confidence to live creative, positive and productive lives. Each year we receive more than 7,000 entries from over 3,500 entrants across the UK in 52 categories. More than 2,000 Awards are granted by over 100 esteemed judges, and each year culminates in a curated exhibition at Southbank Centre which showcases the incredible power of the arts to transform lives.

  • Shaun's Story

Reflection: Coming Back Down to Earth, HM Prison Send, Pastel 2018

Shaun’s Story

Becoming a Koestler mentee helped me become a published author

When I was in prison in America, Prisoner’s Abroad entered my short story ‘Amazing Grace’ into the Koestler Awards. Then, back in England, I received a phone call from their office in London congratulating me on winning a Koestler Award – the Hamish Hamilton prize for short stories. The award did much more than make my day, but I’ll get to that.

I was a stockbroker gone wild in Arizona, arrested by SWAT as part of a series of dawn raids, and sentenced to nine and a half years for money laundering and drug offences. Incarcerated in America, I started Jon’s Jail Journal, a blog that exposed human-rights violations at Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Madison Street jail. In a maximum-security cell – about the size of a bus-stop shelter, with two steel bunks and a seatless toilet – I wrote my blog entries at a tiny stool and table bolted to the wall.

Writing about a dangerous environment helped me deal with the stress of living in it. In the beginning, I just wanted to get out of what I viewed as a life-threatening environment, but settling into a routine of reading and writing helped me cope, and learn a lot about myself.

I emerged from prison hoping to make a career out of the writing skills I’d developed, but I didn’t have any resources or effective connections. For months, I struggled to find professional help and guidance. Then I won the Koestler prize, and things changed overnight. I got to read my story to an audience at the Royal Festival Hall, where I also told the people at Koestler about my need for outside help. They immediately had me apply for their mentoring programme.

Meeting my Koestler mentor for the first time, I knew she was the kind of no-nonsense person I like to work with. Thanks to her constructive feedback, the standard of my prose came along fast. She helped to improve my book about my time in jail, and showed me how to approach literary agents. Thanks to the Koestler mentoring programme, I am now a published author of ten books and a best-seller on Amazon.

For ex-prisoners looking to make a career in the arts, finding help, guidance and resources is almost impossible. Koestler is one of the rare organisations helping ex-prisoners pursue their career ambitions in the arts and to become productive members of society.

I deeply appreciate Prisoners Abroad introducing me to Koestler, and Koestler for helping my career as a writer.

Our supporters play a crucial role in helping us support prisoners’ rehabilitative journeys.


Koestler is one of the rare organisations helping ex-prisoners pursue their career ambitions in the arts and to become productive members of society.