Hardened prisoners at a Sutton jail are writing love poems and painting artworks for a public exhibition.

And the lag with the best verse will win a bouquet of flowers for their partner on the outside on Valentine’s Day.

The prisoners taking part in the exhibition at Sutton Library are serving time at High Down Prison in Sutton for crimes ranging from murder to armed robbery and burglary.

While prison poets are understandably barred from attending the public opening night a film of the event will be shown at a prize-giving ceremony in the prison on February 11.

Besides giving new meaning to jail sentences, poetry is seen as a valubale way of rehabilitating serious offenders, said Kay Hadwick, the prison librarian.

She added: “We have two main categories, love poetry and life poetry, and people may be surprised by how many prisoners want to express their feelings.

“Poetry is a good outlet for them and many find it easier than writing prose because they don’t have to worry about grammar or syntax.”

The novelist Fay Weldon and the comedians Arthur Smith and Tony Hawks have previously awarded prizes to High Down artists.

This year the honours are being performed by Tim Robertson, director of the Koestler Trust, which promotes the arts to prisoners.

Evelyn Nickford, head of learning at High Down, said: “A lot of the men have very bad experiences of education and some cannot read or write.

“We are trying to get them to participate and encourage their reading, writing and numeracy skills.

“The amazement on their faces as they see their work being displayed in a public place is something that will not be forgotten.”

In 2005 book lovers at High Down beat 160 other entrants to win a Penguin/Orange competition to find Britain’s best reading group. Members politely declined the main prize – a free trip to the Edinburgh Book Festival.

• The prison poetry and art exhibition runs at the Europa Gallery, Sutton Library, until Sunday afternoon.