Magic, gangs and prison

Professor Richard Wiseman interviews Darren Way and Gareth Foreman.

There is more to magic than meets the eye. Learning how to perform a magic trick isn’t just about discovering the secret to the illusion, but also involves a range of important skills, including practicing, dexterity, confidence, and storytelling. As a result, many magicians, therapists, and educational practitioners have recognised the potential of magic to improve people’s lives. 

The area has a surprisingly long history. For instance, during the First World War, the book Tricks For The Trenches And Wards described a series of illusions that could be performed by convalescing soldiers as a form of occupational therapy. In the 1950s, the National Committee for Therapy Through Magic encouraged magicians across America to team up with medics and to teach magic tricks to their patients.

More recently, several large-scale initiatives have been launched across the world. For example, the legendary illusionist David Copperfield and occupational therapist Julie DeJean created a magic-based program designed to enhance patients’ wellbeing and motivation. American magician Kevin Spencer has developed a similar program after suffering serious injuries in a car accident. In Canada, magician Julie Eng runs an initiative entitled My Magic Hands, in which magicians and occupational therapists help children with a range of physical challenges. In the UK, Breathe Magic Intensive Therapy Programme uses magic-based interventions to help those suffering from childhood hemiplegia. A key part of this work involves helping their clients to carry out necessary repetitive exercises by incorporating these movements into magic tricks. In South Africa, The College of Magic teaches magic to children to help provide several important life skills, including responsibility, empathy, and humility. In Holland, the Magic Care initiative encourages children in hospital to learn magic to help aid their recovery.

Working with Caroline Watt, I recently reviewed experimental work that had explored the impact of magic on both wellbeing and education (Wiseman & Watt, 2018, 2020). This work looked at around 50 studies, with the findings suggesting that learning magic results in several key benefits, including increased self-esteem and better social skills. Some of my other work in this area has involved looking at the impact of magic on creativity. In a study conducted with Amy Wiles and Caroline Watt, one group of schoolchildren learned how to perform a magic trick whilst another took part in an illusion-based art lesson (Wiseman, Wiles & Watt, 2021). Pre and post scores on the Alternative Uses Test showed that the magic-based intervention resulted in significantly higher levels of creative thinking. Other work, carried out with magician Will Houstoun, showed that incorporating magic tricks into an educational video resulted in increased levels of engagement, attention, and absorption (Wiseman, Houstoun & Watt, 2020). 

I believe that this type of work is especially promising because, compared to many other performing arts, magic has several unique and desirable attributes. For example, whilst learning to play a musical instrument can be extremely time consuming, magic tricks can often be taught in a very short period of time. Also, unlike dance, and drama, they can be performed in a wide range of situations, including to both individuals and groups. Finally, learning magic is economically viable because most illusions involve everyday objects, such as playing cards, coins, rubber bands, etc. 

Darren Way (pictured, right) and Gareth Foreman (left) have extended this work by exploring the potential impact of magic in two additional and challenging environments, gang prevention and prisoner rehabilitation. Darren Way has spent 25 years working as a gang prevention and interventionist in East London. In 2001, following intensive research in America, he founded the charity, Streets of Growth. Gareth Foreman is a counsellor and has extensive experience working in custodial settings, including HMP Wandsworth, Holloway and Wormwood Scrubs. Both have a background in magic, and in this interview we explore how they have used conjuring as the basis for innovative, unusual and effective interventions.

Darren, how did you start using magic in your work with gangs?

Working with gangs depends on forming healthy relationships with clients in their neighbourhoods. I first started as a Youth Worker before becoming a specialist intervention practitioner, and I was often met with suspicion, resistance and even anger. One evening in 1995, I decided to see if performing magic tricks could help to break the ice. 

I approached some lads that were known for being involved with drugs and postcode violence, and produced a flame from my jacket. It certainly caught their attention and one of the lads wanted to see more. I had him choose a playing card and place it back in the deck, and then produced the card from my pocket. One of the lads became aggressive and asked me to explain the trick. I said that I would if we could meet the following day. We met up and I taught him the trick, and this is where I began a conversation about his situation and to gain his trust. From here, I began to help him build a case for change. 

Over the years I have developed ways of using magic to build relationships, and the most effective approach depends on the situation. It can be a fast-track way of getting some gangs to come off the street and enter into my Charity’s community-based Centre. It breaks down barriers and creates conversations that can otherwise take a long time to achieve. 

Why does magic work so well?

I don’t believe there is a definitive answer to that. One example I can give is that young adults who are involved in crime and violence are used to deceiving and concealing weapons, and so maybe they are drawn to someone who seems to have similar skills. Plus, they seem to like knowing something that other people don’t know because it makes them feel superior. Magic allows for that in a safe and positive context. It’s weird that a deceptive form of communication like magic can be used to build trust. Whatever their reasons are for responding to magic, I leverage this curiosity to help gangs overcome their misconceptions and distrust of me. 

How else can performing magic help with gangs?

When I use magic to build relationships with gangs, it has frequently helped to reveal the gang hierarchy. Let me give you a simple example. I was once performing a card trick to a group on a stairwell of a block of council flats. Halfway through the trick, this lad grabbed the cards, threw them at me and told me to f**k off! The following night, during my second attempt to talk to this young man, he apologised. He basically let slip he was the main man of this group and explained that he had felt threatened by the magic because he didn’t feel in control of the situation. 

Many people assume that the individuals drawn to gangs are confident because of the harmful activities that they get caught up in. However, many of the young adults that I have worked with often feel insecure. Learning how to perform magic allows them to strip off the armour they have built to protect themselves from these insecurities. It encourages them to build positive relationships with others without the need to join a gang. Having a deck of cards in your pocket is far safer than carrying a knife. 

Does magic have its limitations in this context?

Oh yes. After building a trusting relationship with ‘higher risk’ young people, I work with them to create positive plans for their lifestyle, education and career. At this point, magic fades into the background because people need real help including a wider range of specialist interventions and courses linked to support at street level rather than tricks. This process can take anywhere between 1-3 years.

Also, in my experience, magic is just a tool and there are many other ways of achieving the same ends. Other practitioners use sport or art to achieve similar impacts and outcomes. My clients often remember the magic as an unusual way of breaking the ice but say that it was my other interventions that were key to breaking their cycle of self-defeating behaviour.

That’s fascinating. When and how did you meet Gareth?

In 2012 and by chance. We happened to bump into one another at a magic shop in London and began chatting about a possible collaboration teaching magic to ‘at risk’ young people to improve their future. 

I see. What came out of your collaboration?

We staged a 12-week evening early intervention course for 14 to 16-year-olds based in East London. They started off learning simple tricks and then moved onto more challenging material. The course encouraged a range of skills including literacy, numeracy, concentration and perseverance. Many of our clients had been excluded from mainstream education or left with very low grades and found that learning magic was an engaging way of developing these important skills. Again, magic was a good hook but there was much more to the course than that. Many clients faced serious issues in their lives, and my outreach workers helped to ensure that the skills from the course were being applied in the real world. Running the course encouraged Gareth to think about using magic as part of his work in contained correctional environments.


Now to you Gareth… can you tell us something about how you use magic as an intervention?

Sure. In 2016, I was working in Wormwood Scrubs delivering CBT-type rehabilitation programmes. I wondered whether magic might help and so put together a 5-day course. 

As with most courses, the prisoners started off being cynical and suspicious. They often see courses as something that they have to do pre-release. However, when I performed a magic trick, many of them instantly became curious and attentive.  I can remember one client saying “Sir, you’ve just done me. I’ve spent the past 20 years doing other people and you’ve done me, and it ain’t a good feeling”. 

I then tell the group that they are going to work out how the trick was achieved. They doubt that they can do it, but I divide them into groups and give each group a deck of cards. As they are working on solutions, I walk around and listen to their conversations. It’s quite amazing what they come up with.

Some prisoners like instant gratification and struggle with the emotional conflict caused by not having a quick fix. Often that is one of the reasons that they have turned to violence. This exercise encourages patience and perseverance. It also promotes divergent thinking. They have to consider alternative possibilities and stop thinking that something can’t be achieved. Also, the solution to many tricks is surprisingly simple. We often tie ourselves in knots over-analysing a situation and in fact the answer is straightforward. 

What happens next?

Eventually, they come up with the right method, and I then encourage them to think of an issue in their own lives, and I ask them to use the same approach to think about possible solutions once they are released into the community. 

For example, you might have a client who had been homeless, went shoplifting, sold what he stole, and then made his way to a crack house. He might have seen this as a temporary solution, but it soon becomes a routine and so he ends up in prison. This cycle repeats itself again and again. The magic course becomes a springboard for asking him to reflect on what he could do differently, explore other options, realise that the first answer is not always the best, and persevere with looking for solutions.  

Other times, it might be about opportunities and employment goals. For instance, a client may want to become a pilot but this may not be possible. However, the course encourages them to adopt a different perspective and to find another way of working in the aviation industry.

How does the course progress and what other skills do people learn?

Each day we start with a new piece of magic, and again participants are asked to work out how it was done. I also create other roles for people. For instance, one client in each group might be nominated as the performer, and they come up and explain the ideas from their group. Another person might act as the manager and they explain how the group reached their solution. Every week I get feedback from my clients, and the consensus is that the course builds a variety of skills, including self-confidence, trust, team working, mood, decision making, listening skills, social skills and a sense of achievement. 

Do you have any collective final thoughts?

[Darren and Gareth] Yes. For us, magic-based interventions are becoming increasingly popular in many different contexts, and our joint concern is that they are being seen as a miracle intervention. Much of the data from this work is not being collected in real world situations nor measuring longer term impact. In our experience, magic is a tool that can promote engagement, attention and curiosity. However, real change depends upon many other interventions, including people feeling safe in their communities, not being involved with gang members, dealing with trauma, moving away from problematic family homes, identifying possible solutions to their issues, and learning to holding down a job.


Much of the academic work into the educational value of magic has been carried out within somewhat artificial settings and taken a broad brush approach. Darren and Gareth have provided a valuable and nuanced insight into the use of magic in a far more realistic and challenging context. Their extensive experience suggests that there are both advantages and disadvantages to this type of intervention. On the upside, magic captures attention, can help to build relationships and has the potential to encourage people to view situations in a more expansive way. However, on the downside, it rarely leads to real and sustained change. Instead, progress is only obtained over a long period of time, and through using tools that confront the types of serious psychological and societal challenges facing their clients. 

For further information about Darren and Gareth’s valuable work, please visit

Editor's note: Originally published online 11 August 2021 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber