EVA Hogendoorn excitedly greets the postman every day.
That’s because she receives up to EIGHT letters from some of her 3,000 pen pals who are among the country’s most dangerous prisoners.
But inside the envelopes isn’t what may be expected from the likes of murderers, rapists and notorious gangsters.
Instead of a grim insight of life in jail, the inmates send her hundreds of pictures of everything from fairies and cute fluffy cats to picturesque landscapes and famous faces they have created behind bars.
“People often wonder what I get through the post and expect it to be really dark and depressive – but it’s not the case at all.
“I get about 3,000 letters and pictures a year and I never throw any of them away.
“I get all sorts pouring in. You’d be amazed how the most hardened criminal can send the most beautiful picture of a fairy.
“The raw talent is amazing. I get letters telling me art helps them escape.”
For nine years Eva is the woman who has unlocked the creative talent of criminals in the hope it will give them hope there is life outside the cells.
A qualified art teacher and psychotherapist, she has toured the country teaching the most notorious offenders that there are no bars to the imagination.
“Art has huge healing power among the prisoners.
It’s an amazing tool. It’s like a switch that makes them change.
“It makes them realise they have a worth, a value.
“I’ve had notorious gangsters come to a class who may have never even picked up a pencil before and say they don’t want to do it. But before long they are drawing and it keeps getting better and better and better.
“There was one tall, lanky London gangster who wasn’t interested in drawing at all but during the class, I caught him so completely concentrated on his canvas that my heart melted.
“At the end he had a big smile on his face and his hands were behind his back. He asked if I could put his creation away safe in a portfolio for him. There on the paper was a large circle with two dots and the most childish face of a tiger but there he was, he was so proud and he said he couldn’t wait for the next session.
"These hardened criminals who are master manipulators soon realise art gives them kudos in prison, and a bargaining tool say if somebody wants a card made for his girlfriend."
Today, Eva no longer teaches art in prison due to funding cuts.
However she singlehandedly runs the Prison Art Project for the Burnbake Trust, a charity formed in 1975 to aid the rehabilitation of offenders through art.
The charity based in Wilton, Salisbury, supplies prisoners with art materials worth £50.
In return, they send Eva their artwork to display and sell in exhibitions she hosts. The Trust keeps 30 per cent to put back into the service while the prisoners get 70 per cent so they can fund their craft.
Eva, explains: “This step we feel is crucial in building confidence and developing a sense of self worth, which are important steps in the artist’s eventual rehabilitation.
“The Trust provides a channel for their artistic talents and for them to explore sides of themselves that they never knew existed or had previously been unable to reach.
“A lot of people expect to see grim people hanging behind bars but why would people want that on the wall. I tell them they have to look forward and learn to paint to earn a living, not look back. Psychedelic stuff just doesn’t cut it commercially,” she laughs.
That’s just one of the many snippets of advice that Eva shares when she writes to all the prisoners, which is for her a vital part of her job.
Though the art enthusiast, who is currently being nominated for a Queen’s award by one of the inmates, says: “I now have hundreds of pen pals in prison and they all write their fears to me.
“As soon as I get letters I answer them. Out of respect I hand write the letters back because computers can be very cold and it’s not about that.
It’s about being on the same level as them. I relate to each person as an individual.
“I always try to go just that little bit further if there is any way I feel I can help someone.
“The replies come very naturally and I try to give as much advice as I can.
“It’s not just a job for me – quite a few on the books have become friends.”
“Once I had a voicemail from a man in the office who said ‘Eva I can’t cope with this anymore. You’re the only friend I’ve ever had. He said he was on hunger strike and not taking any liquids and he wanted me to have all his paintings and pencils.
“I phoned the chaplaincy and they went round to talk to him. I got the most beautiful tiger card through with wonderful calligraphy to say thank you.
“To me, that means the world.”
However despite the relationship she forms with the convicts, Eva says she keeps all correspondence on a professional level and has to keep elements of her identity secret for her safety such as her age, marital status and where she lives.
“For a lot of male prisoners, I may be the only woman they have contact with so it’s always totally professional.”
That professionalism, she says, must also exist if she discovers what crimes her pen pals have committed.
“I don’t feel I need or want to know what they are inside for but when you do hear, it does play on your mind a little but I have to switch off.
“From murderers, molesters, wife beaters and drink drivers to druggies, I have seen it all but the past is not something I am interested in.
“Of course, at the exhibitions I host you get the odd person who says ‘prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to be artists, you should throw away the key’, but to me that’s someone who has not had their eyes opened to the backgrounds of a lot of these people.
“Regardless of what they have done, anyone is capable of bettering themselves and then helping other people.
Many do go on to help other people and they are often the best role models because they have been there and done it. I’ve heard from ex-offenders who have gone on to university and others who leave prison making a career of their art.”
Eva will represent the prisoners when she brings 200 works of art priced from £5 to £250 to Romsey this Friday and Saturday. An exhibition of the work takes place at Romsey Abbey from 10am until 5pm.
Eva, adds: “Buying a painting, can change someone’s life. It’s as simple as that.”
For more information about the charity or the exhibition email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to burnbaketrust.co.uk.