Prisoners and performance: women on the inside

Clean Break director Imogen Ashby speaks to about the neglect of women in prison, resettlement and the power of restorative theatre

Credit: Clean Break

Credit: Clean Break

There were tears in the eyes of the prison governor at Askham Grange HMP as she stood in front of a small public audience and gave her thanks. Normally, this kind of official graciousness comes across as empty and contrived, but this talking trouser suit turned out to be a tearful woman who was clearly as deeply moved as the audience by the performance of Clean Break’s There Are Mountains that we had just watched.

Sat in the Askham Grange manor house, six female inmates alongside actress Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat, Dreams of A Life) performed the play – which Chloe Moss wrote whilst working inside the prison, and was then directed by Imogen Ashby – depicting the struggle of dorm life as women prepare for release and try to reassimilate to the outside world, reconnecting with lost family members in the process. The whole performance was professional; the set was impressive and despite obvious initial nerves, the women’s performances were both convincing and incredibly moving.

“There is a difference between the needs of women and the needs of men in prison, and both are complicated, but differently complicated…”

Maybe now it’s time to say that it was easy to forget that I was sat in a prison, but it wasn’t. The performance was deeply rooted in the space of the prison and by drawing the audience into the onstage struggle, we were continually reminded that within these same walls an even greater struggle continues off-stage. The setting was made even more powerful in the knowledge that back in 1979, two female inmates set up Clean Break in Askham Grange to give voice to those whose experiences remain untold and misunderstood today – a poignant thought that was encapsulated by the governor’s tears that opening night.

“That was a pretty major thing and pretty incredible that she had actually worked in the prison service for twenty years and there were things she just hadn’t thought about. At that level they’re quite removed from the women so they’re not seeing their daily struggles with both their living situation, in terms of the dormitory, and also in preparing to be released,” director Imogen Ashby described as we reflected on the performance. “I thought that was really telling. Often we’ll think that if you’ve worked in the prison service for twenty years then you’ll absolutely know everything, then [governors] see these things in a story, or in a piece of woman’s writing and it’ll literally make them see things differently.

“I think it says a lot about what theatre can do.”

The strong impact of these performances reflects the importance of Clean Break’s work. Although the reoffending rate of those leaving Askham Grange is only around 7%, the national average of women who reoffend within the first 12 months of release is at 51% increasing to 68% after. Such bleak figures expose the lack of successful resettlement programmes and also reflect badly on the few resources that are offered to the women. However, Clean Break offers a brighter alternative, as the reoffending rate of students of Clean Break courses – run in their London studios for women who are at risk of offending – is only 5% with 71% of the women continuing on to education programmes, employment and volunteering schemes. Likewise, the average annual cost of each prison place in the UK is around £40 000 – Clean Break have calculated that for every £1 invested in the company, £4.57 is recovered through savings to the criminal justice system.

Clean Break present a successful model for other educational programmes in the criminal justice system by using theatre to creatively approach and find solutions to the issue of resettlement. Upon arriving at Askham Grange, the audience were met with a whole host of different front of house staff who are normally expected at the theatre, as Clean Break used the public performances of There Are Mountains to convert Askham into a professional space with all the industry roles filled by other inmates. With the average literacy and numeracy rates of women in prison being extremely low, and 58% of women identifying a lack of skills and unemployment as the primary contributing factor of their reoffending, increasing the women’s employability and self-esteem is a positive approach to lowering the rate of recidivism.

The overwhelmingly positive feedback from the women involved in There Are Mountains demonstrates the success of Clean Break’s method. The participants described the experience as “the most positive” they “had ever had in jail” and that it brought out “higher self-esteem, confidence and the ability to look into [themselves] emotionally.”

While another participant wrote, “To be trusted as an equal has given me more confidence in myself. This is what resettlement should be.”

Having worked closely with the participants, Imogen describes her own view. “I think it had a really profound effect on the women. One of the women was a lifer who had done pretty much every possible course that there is to do and she said it was the only thing that had really changed her. I think that’s due to the experience of being part of a team and working with others in a space where they were able to trust each other – a lot of women don’t feel like they can trust each other in prison. It was really good for breaking down the barriers between them.

“Askham were so open to us being there and I think it actually gave them a lot of confidence because they ran the event really well and they know that there is an audience as well – they will be able to continue to engage with people who wouldn’t usually have come to the prison.”

Prison is a difficult and cumbersome institution. For the public who have no access to true representations of prison life, the opportunity Clean Break provides for a better understanding of the prison experience – whether this comes from actually being in a prison environment or from listening to the women being able to openly express their struggles to a listening audience – is both refreshing and welcomed. Companies like Clean Break and projects like those they provide, are significant for not just the women, but also for the public who can sometimes appear to have a penchant for media myth-making and outrage.

“A lot of people said it changed their perspective on what women prisoners are,” Imogen describes. “I think often they’re really surprised to see that there’s a whole range of women who, for whatever reason, end up in prison and also by the age of the women – there’s the impression that it’s just young kind of girl gang types and there’s still quite a Bad Girls image about it.”

I cringe slightly at hearing my own quiet misconceptions, but it’s important to recognise how deeply ingrained these images of female prisoners are, which even the more “liberal” audience expected to attend this kind of production still have. However, these perceptions can be easily dispelled and as one participant wrote in response to her experience: “I learnt that not all outsiders judge me.”

While this is all positive, the fact that Clean Break only work with women exposes another underlying issue concerning the treatment of women in prison. Despite women only making up 5% of the prison population, female inmates account for over half the incidents of self-harm within prison with 66% of the women showing signs of neurotic disorders. Even 5 years after the Corston Report was released, which outlined ways in which vulnerable women in prison should be treated and changes that need to be made, the statistics remain bleak and little has been changed.

I ask Imogen the significance of Clean Break only working with women.

“There is a difference between the needs of women and the needs of men in prison, and both are complicated, but differently complicated as often the women have experienced being victims themselves.

“It’s also political. There is the whole theatre agenda about there not being enough female playwrights and not enough parts for women, so we’re very much speaking to that as well – we only work with female play-rights and also give parts to women of all ages.

“The female only space is also really important for the women who are trying to regain their confidence and have often had very negative relationships with the men in their lives. It’s an opportunity for the women to develop their confidence, rebuild relationships and often very low self-esteem. We found that a female-only space is the best place for that to happen and it’s also very powerful for people who are not used to being in a woman only space.

“It’s a really strong position that we hold.”

Find out more and support Clean Break here or follow them on Twitter at @CleanBrk

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