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Inside story: Theatre in prisons and the fight for rehabilitation

Tej Obano, Pierre Moullier, Rushand Chambers, Raphael Gwilliams-Akuwudike, Ayomide Adegun and Jake Mills in The Jumper Factory at the Young Vic. Photo: Leon Puplett
Tej Obano, Pierre Moullier, Rushand Chambers, Raphael Gwilliams-Akuwudike, Ayomide Adegun and Jake Mills in The Jumper Factory at the Young Vic. Photo: Leon Puplett

Though Britain’s jails are at bursting point, theatremakers are working with current and former prisoners to prepare them to rejoin their communities and reduce reoffending. Key figures from the arts and prison sectors tell Tim Bano why this work is vital to those involved and society as a whole

The population of UK prisons has quadrupled in the past century. On October 11, 2019, there were 93,501 people in prison in the UK, according to official government figures. On top of that, prisoners are getting older, sentences are getting longer and almost two thirds of prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded.

HMP Wandsworth is a category-B prison, the second-highest security category. It’s one of the largest prisons in Western Europe, and the most overcrowded in England and Wales. It’s early September and eight people are huddled outside the wall; the brick watchtowers at the front entrance, the arched windows and huge wooden doors make it look like some medieval castle. These people aren’t here to visit inmates or to be processed, but to watch a piece of theatre.

The practice of theatre in prisons is nothing new. One of the best-known theatre companies working in prisons, Clean Break, turned 40 this year with a major programme of work, including Alice Birch’s [Blank] currently running at the Donmar Warehouse. Another major player, Geese Theatre Company, is 32 years old, and next year Synergy will hit 20.

These companies, and others like them, are doing all they can to make criminal justice about rehabilitation. But for many – in government, in prisons and especially among the general public – theatre’s influence remains undervalued and unnoticed in its struggle to exist within a system that has rarely faced more challenges.

Geese Theatre provides theatre workshops and training programmes in prisons. Its artistic director Andy Watson says: “It’s about as tricky as it has been for a while. The levels of violence – both prisoner to prisoner, and prisoner to staff – are as high as they’ve been for a while. Levels of self-harm and suicide are as high as they’ve been for a long time. Prisons are under-resourced, understaffed, and they have capacity issues.”

‘Our work is built around the idea of change – the belief that people can live a different life from the one that brought them into prison’ – Geese Theatre’s Andy Watson

Beyond that, arts in prisons – whether it’s painting, writing, acting, or any other form – can be perceived as woolly liberalism trying to solve the world’s ills with fluffy art. The tabloids can be particularly critical. Last year the Sun ran a story that started: “Convicts at a drug-plagued prison performed a lavish version of musical Les Misérables for the public – to boost lags’ morale.” Two years earlier, in the same paper, a story ran that “prisoners in Britain’s creaking jails are to be taught art, music and drama in a desperate bid to slash reoffending”. In 2008, the Daily Mail reported: “A sick joke: terrorist signs up for comedy classes at top-security prison.” So why do these companies do it? Because the evidence that it works is overwhelming.

Watson says: “Our work is entirely built around the idea of change; the belief that people can live a different life from the one that brought them into prison, and the possibility that engaging in a theatre-based process might be the catalyst for people to start thinking about how they are, and how they can be differently in their lives.”

Apart from specialist companies such as Geese, Synergy, Open Clasp, TIPP (which stands for Theatre in Prison and Probation) and Clean Break, which have been working for decades, there’s good work from mainstream organisations, too. The Young Vic’s Taking Part programme puts on community work inspired by its main-stage shows. On the back of its production of The Brothers Size in 2018, head of participation Rob Lehmann set up a programme to work with prisoners at Wandsworth.

The Brothers Size review at Young Vic, London – ‘tender exploration of brotherhood’

“We could have done something a bit more conventional, a bit less risky,” he says. “But we’re about finding the unheard voices. We’d done stories about sex workers, refugees, Romany and Irish travellers – groups that are marginalised or misrepresented. Not the voices you usually see on stage. The work is made for them, by them and with them.”


Prison governor Emily Thomas on the value of the arts in prisons…

It gives prisoners an opportunity to express themselves, gain confidence and a sense of pride. It helps them to think about quite difficult issues and makes them easier to talk about. There’s a slight separation if you’re talking about a play or a novel, or you’re writing lyrics or a script, which gives you freedom to write about things that are important to you. It allows people to be creative in a way they may not have had an opportunity to do. We’re always looking for ways to motivate prisoners who want to be involved with education and qualifications and opportunities to gain employment skills. The arts is one of the ways of doing that.

Emily Thomas is governor of Isis Young Offender Institution in London. She is an advocate for the arts in prisons

Playwright Luke Barnes

Ten men aged from 21 to 63, with different sentences, circumstances and backgrounds spent three months devising a play with writer Luke Barnes and director Justin Audibert.

Barnes says: “The problem a lot of prisoners face when they leave is that people don’t take them seriously and don’t give them employment. They’re dehumanised. So I tried to make something about the emotional life of being inside a prison. My process is to try to facilitate other people to speak. I go into the room and say: ‘What do you want to talk about? Who the fuck am I? What do I know about prison? You guys are the experts in your world, we’re the experts in storytelling, together we’re going to make a show.’”

The result was The Jumper Factory, a play following the experience of a man as he goes into prison, performed for other men at Wandsworth. The title came from one of the prisoners who lied to his child about where he was going and why, rather than explaining that he was going to jail.

‘The problem people face when they leave prison is that they’re dehumanised’ – playwright Luke Barnes

The Young Vic remounted the show for the public with a new director, Josh Parr, and a new cast who had experience of the criminal justice system, touring to theatres across the country. A year after it was first staged, it came back to Wandsworth one last time. None of the 10 men who created the piece was still there. “We discovered that they’d been deported, moved prisons, just got lost in the system.” Their 10 names are still inscribed in the play text, a permanent record of precarious lives.

That constant movement is an occupational hazard in prison work, one of the many challenges in the sector. It’s something Barnes took into account when writing the piece: each actor delivers a few lines or a scene, but they all play one character, so the play is adaptable to the number of performers.

Reducing reoffending

Synergy’s Esther Baker

Esther Baker, artistic director of Synergy, is used to the logistical problems of bringing theatre to prisons. The work is worth it. Baker founded Synergy in 2000 after receiving the Butler Trust Award for her innovative work teaching drama in prisons. Synergy looks at both sides of the prison wall: training and working with people inside through workshops and productions, but sticking with them on the outside too, finding them employment either as actors or writers, or in stage management roles.

“We create employment for quite a lot of ex-prisoners,” Baker explains. “We help them into education and training. Obviously, it has an impact on health and well-being, on self-esteem, on self-concept, on future aspirations. It can improve the atmosphere of a prison. It can help reduce reoffending.”

At the moment, reoffending rates are high. Of adults who have been in prison, 44% are convicted again within a year of release, costing the country £6 billion annually. But research by the charity New Philanthropy Capital (albeit on a small sample size) estimated that just 5% of women completing a Clean Break course reoffend. The report said: “We estimate that for every £1 invested in the programme, £4.57 of value is created for society over one year.”

For Clean Break’s co-artistic director Róisín McBrinn, that’s far from the only reason they do their work: “For us, success can manifest itself in multiple ways. We want to ensure members are living their most fruitful, creative life whatever that looks like.”

A big goal for the Ministry of Justice is ‘desistance’, the ongoing process in which a criminal stops offending, and carries on not offending throughout their life. But the prison system works completely against the process. As a 2015 report on arts provision by the Scottish Prison Service put it: “The nature of imprisonment itself means that it runs against the grain of desistance by limiting agency and responsibility, delaying maturation, damaging social ties (and sometimes building anti-social ones) and cementing criminal identities.” The arts can begin to dissolve those barriers.

Inside HMP Wandsworth, officers behind thick glass take our passports and phones. The Young Vic’s Lehmann whisks us through a lot of doors with very big locks, through passageways, up and down stairs, until we’re in a space that looks like a starfish: a huge hexagonal hall with six long legs, each of which makes up one wing of the prison. Along one of those limbs is D Wing, which we enter to get to the chapel. It’s like every prison on TV: grey and blue, metal corridors and bars everywhere, netting above our heads. A few prisoners in grey tracksuits stare.

Every wall is plastered with posters that are a combination of building up and clamping down. Some threaten punishment for misdemeanours. Others advertise support groups or programmes or workshops; there’s no shortage of these posters, and also not nearly enough.

More doors lead to a courtyard covered in litter, including a smashed TV, its electrics getting soaked in the rain. Then we reach the Catholic chapel of St Peter in Chains, a name that feels as though it’s rubbing salt in the wound. Fifty people have signed up to watch the performance, but Lehmann isn’t holding his breath. “Could be three. Maybe no one. The trouble is finding them all.” One member of the group jokes: “It’s not as if we don’t know where they are.”

Measuring theatre’s effectiveness

Laura Caulfield

Laura Caulfield is director of the Institute for Community Research and Development at the University of Wolverhampton. She has conducted extensive research into the arts in criminal justice settings. A few years ago, she explains, the sector began to realise the need not just for qualitative evidence but also hard quantitative data. It became necessary to provide metrics and measure performance.

“We’ve really tried to address some of that in recent research by having control groups, for instance, or having more evidence of pre- and post-programme outcomes. Now there is a fairly substantial amount of evidence about the impact of the arts.”

What does that evidence tell us? “It’s unrealistic to say taking part in an arts programme will reduce reoffending. But we look at mediating factors, things that indicate someone is less likely to reoffend in the future. The evidence is fairly clearly there.”

Jessica Plant, director of the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance, the membership organisation for the arts in criminal justice, agrees: “It’s dangerous to overplay what art can do. But it can support the desistance process.”

As ever, there’s a tension between the practice of art and measuring the success of that art. New Philanthropy Capital’s 2011 report on the economic benefit of the arts in criminal justice, Unlocking Value, puts it like this: “While government targets are built around an end – offending – arts organisations tend to focus on means – personal, social and emotional skills.” But money is necessary to fund these art projects, it’s in short supply and organisations are having to prove they deserve it.

‘There is substantial evidence about the impact of the arts’ – Laura Caulfield, University of Wolverhampton

According to a review of arts in the Scottish Prisons Service, these are the outcomes linked to arts practice in criminal justice: attitudinal change, increase in self-efficacy and agency, improved mental well-being, increased self-esteem and self-confidence, a “love of learning” through experiencing achievement, increased motivation, dedication and determination, increased skills relevant to employability, increased ability to relate to the world through reflection and empathy, better family relationships, social skills, teamwork and leadership skills. As well as the impact on individual prisoners, the arts can improve the prison system by encouraging better behaviour and improved relationships between prisoners and staff.

Another report by the NCJAA found “a clear link between taking part in arts-based activities and the movement towards secondary desistance [an ongoing non-offending lifestyle]”.

Caulfield says there is robust research showing that arts in prison leads to “reductions in feelings of anger and incidents of violent outbursts”, as well as building communication and relationship skills. While those aren’t instant or wholesale fixes, they feed significantly into that desistance journey. “It’s very difficult to say ‘A caused B’,” she says. “But you can show that someone is developing those skills as part of being on that journey to moving away from crime.”

Research has to take place over a long period of time, and with a lot of data. But it’s getting to the point where studies are revealing the benefits of the arts quite clearly, and are backed up with robust methods. And Plant promises that “the big bit of research we all need is in the pipeline”, namely a large-scale research project involving eight organisations to ensure a significant sample size, involving randomised control trials and comparative studies, which has just been given funding.

On the ground, however, companies are getting on with their work. For Geese in 2018/19 that meant 57 different projects in 19 different prisons. Synergy worked with about 200 prisoners and ex-prisoners, of whom 14 gained a qualification, while 89 found work placements or employment, including work at Netflix, on The Apprentice and in the West End.

Inspiring debate

In the chapel of St Peter in Chains, 13 prisoners turn up in the end. They’re escorted slowly, wing by wing, into the chapel. Some are barely more than teenagers, one or two a lot older. They’re all quiet, all completely attentive throughout the performance, a gripping piece of drama even with no set and very little tech, under the bleak, functional lights of a prison chapel.

There’s a perception that community work – whether in prisons, or anything else outside the mainstream – is not very good artistically. But, says Barnes, that’s only because the artists aren’t engaging the community in the right way. They’re not doing their job properly. It’s a sentiment Baker agrees with: her job is to make sure the play she’s directing ends up being worth watching, otherwise what’s the point?
“Theatres need to open their doors more to this kind of work. It has a long way to go in terms of the way it involves the community in its projects. They don’t just have to be the chorus in the background.”

Barnes adds: “You’ve got to find a way that embraces who they are. It’s about creating something that plays to the strengths and weaknesses, or turns weaknesses into strengths.”

That’s good for the industry, too: it makes people in the criminal justice system co-producers of art, and explores experiences and life stories that would otherwise never make it to the stage. It allows people from different backgrounds to contribute to the creative landscape, and to feel that their lives are worth putting on a stage.

And, as well as looking in, it’s about looking out: inspiring public debate about the criminal justice system, and our knee-jerk assumptions about criminals. It’s something that Arts Council England has realised. In December, it will release a document outlining its priorities for the next 10 years. A line in the draft proposal makes explicit its recognition of the sector’s importance, and there are many practitioners with fingers tightly crossed that the line will make the final cut.

In 2018/19 ACE awarded £135,541 of National Lottery Project Grant funding to theatre projects in prisons. Clean Break, Open Clasp and Geese are all national portfolio organisations, receiving between £40,000 and £200,000 per year each.

A spokesperson for ACE says: “Creative activities can help offenders develop more positive identities, build better social climates in prisons, tackle depression and anxiety, and potentially contribute to desistance and reduced reoffending.” But it’s remaining understandably tight-lipped about the final strategy before the December release.

On top of that, prison ministers and culture ministers have spoken publicly in support of the provision of arts in prisons. It feels like a sector that, after decades of hustling, is at the start of something major: recognition by bodies with authority, increased and positive public perception, and extensive, rigorous research supporting the links between arts provision and behaviours associated with reductions in reoffending.

Meanwhile, that success is taking place in a challenging environment. A new system for contracting companies to provide workshops and courses, called the Dynamic Purchasing System, has had significant teething problems.

The aim is to increase innovation in education provision in prisons by opening it up to market forces. Under the system, governors have a lot more autonomy about how they spend their education budget. If you have a governor who recognises that arts-based practice could be a huge benefit to their population, they now have a flexible budget that can be used to commission lots of arts-based projects.

Before this system, projects were created in dialogue with a governor. Practitioner and governor would meet, discuss needs, find money somewhere, and do it. Now, all interaction between the two parties is reduced to a 750-word box in the procurement process.

Plant, the NCJAA’s director, says that there are opportunities, but there are potentially very heavy costs, too, warning that “we might lose some organisations along the way”.

On top of that, in the most recent Queen’s Speech, the government promised tougher sentencing, keeping more offenders in these institutions for longer, which is “counter to what all the evidence tells us about successful rehabilitation reducing crime”, according to Caulfield.

As for the practitioners, “it goes in waves,” according to Geese Theatre’s Watson. “Prior to this whole Brexit nonsense, I would have said we were in quite a healthy position. There was certainly a lot more support for this sort of work, not entirely at government level but certainly the Ministry of Justice understands the role the arts can play in enabling people to move forward with their lives.”

But the effects of austerity are still biting on a day-to-day basis, especially in terms of the resources a prison has – or lacks. “It’s simple things, like needing to get the prisoners from their cells to whatever room you’re working in. Just to transport the prisoners, if they don’t have the staff, then the project isn’t going to happen,” Watson says.

Clean Break has felt the squeeze in trying to find partner organisations for its work, as many mid-scale theatre companies have, and austerity has had a huge impact on Clean Break’s members, too. “We have a member support team: two highly qualified women who are in the building to listen, and to provide advice on housing, universal credit and referrals to organisations that deal with drug and alcohol abuse or domestic violence. It is completely essential, particularly in this climate where the pressures on women who are impacted by poverty are just getting worse and worse.”


Geese’s Andy Watson on applying the language of theatre to prison settings…

Andy Watson

Many people we work with are on a journey of exploring their own identity – who they are and who they could be in the world. Our work is about how you can use theatre to explore some of those issues around identity – the roles we play in our lives, the script that we tend to repeat – thinking through the skills they might need to rehearse when they get out of prison. We use theatre and the language of theatre to create spaces to undertake some of that exploration.

At its core, theatre is behaviour. With Macbeth, we know what his behaviours are, but what’s really interesting is thinking about where those behaviours come from and what has motivated those decisions. What are the feelings, attitudes and beliefs driving those behaviours? That’s why theatre speaks to this work so well.

You can create a safe, theatre-based space where people are not having to be the hyper-vigilant, hyper-masculine version of themselves to survive prison. They are able to explore vulnerability, without fear that people are going to take the piss or laugh at them. It’s the same as a rehearsal room in theatre. You take that principle and apply it in a prison.

It’s not hard to find supportive quotes from MPs in the last couple of years who have been prison ministers or culture ministers, including Sam Gyimah, Matt Hancock and David Gauke. But since then, none of those MPs has the same job – and only Hancock is still in the Conservative Party. In the throes of political turbulence, when there are bigger fish to fry, it’s unlikely that the two areas that are at the bottom of the pile – artists and prisoners – are going to get much attention from the government.

But among everybody else, there is the will and there are whisperings of a way. Most suspect that the sector will grow over the next 10 years, especially if the Arts Council makes it a priority. With that will come an upsurge in interest from mainstream, non-specialist organisations.

“That’s good,” says Watson, “as long as they acknowledge that this is specialist work. We train people for six months, minimum to do this. In prison you’re working with a vulnerable population, but a vulnerable population that disguises their vulnerability. You need to understand what you’re doing.”

Watson also says that if mainstream organisations do start working more in prisons, they need to ask themselves why. “If the only answer you can come up with is ‘because I got funding’ or ‘because it ticks a box with the Arts Council’ then that’s not good enough. It’s a small sector, and you can spend 30 years doing great work. It takes one bad project to make a prison governor say: ‘I will never do that again.’ It takes one piece of equipment left lying around – one incident can damage the whole sector.”

Becoming assets to the community

The last words of The Jumper Factory are spoken, through speakers, by one of the men who originally devised the piece. It’s the last time the walls of HMP Wandsworth will hear those words. The six actors are met with a surprising amount of applause from an audience of 13. There’s a very brief question-and-answer session – just one question and one answer – and afterwards a couple of the cast shake each audience member’s hand and thank them for coming. Then a guard takes everyone back to their cells.

Less than three weeks after the performance, all 3,000 locks are changed at Wandsworth prison after a locksmith is suspected of giving keys to inmates.

“Pretty much everyone we work with in a prison is going to be getting out,” Watson says. “They’re going to be someone’s neighbour, someone’s uncle, someone’s employee. Ideally, we want them to be assets to the community. The perception for a lot of these men and women is that they have become deficits to their community, which is why they’ve been removed. But they’re all coming out. The question is: how do we want them to be when they come out?”

Besides the overwhelming evidence, the economic impact, and the fact that, as Plant says, “art can provide hope where there is very little”, there’s a fundamental belief that underpins prison work for Geese, Synergy and Clean Break. It’s also what drives the NCJAA, and remains constantly in the background of Caulfield’s research. It’s this: 13 men who watched The Jumper Factory in Wandsworth on a grey, wet Monday morning absolutely have the right to access the arts. So do the other 93,488 people in prisons in the UK. And when they do, society is better for it.

From Prison to the West End

Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga in The Fishermen. Photo: Robert Day

Valentine Olukoga came across Synergy while serving a short sentence at HMP Brixton in 2011. “While I was in there, I was lost. I knew that I was a bit of a hot-head outside the prison, so knew I had to keep my cool in there.”

He looked for education programmes he could join in order to keep him grounded and to get him out of his cell. One day, Esther Baker came into the prison. “You see a blonde, Caucasian lady in a prison, you’ve never seen her before, she doesn’t have a uniform on, your eyes are automatically attracted to her. I went up to her and said: ‘What do you do?’ She said: ‘I’m doing a theatre project.’ I was like: ‘Do I get to come out of my cell more than others?’ And she said: ‘Yeah.’ So I joined.”

Olukoga starred in Synergy’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross and, when he got out, Baker stayed in touch and offered him a part in a show that was touring to schools. Then came another show where Olukoga played the lead alongside Letitia Wright, who recently starred in Marvel’s Black Panther. “I remember having a conversation with her on the bus when she broke down about how much she wanted to be an actor, and it started making me think about how much I really want this, because I didn’t think I had the same passion she had. But when I came off productions I realised that I do. I realised that was the time that my mind could slip back into being angry all the time or being upset.”

Olukoga is now in Gbolahan Obisesan’s adaptation of The Fishermen at Trafalgar Studios. “I’m just so grateful to be given an opportunity. And it all stems from someone walking into prison and being interested in the creative sides of those of us that were incarcerated.”

He still works with Synergy. “If I was in Hollywood and got a call from Synergy saying they were working with some kids in Harrow, please believe that I’d be getting the plane to come and work with those kids. We can all enjoy our own individual lives, but without someone caring about me at the time that I needed someone to care for me I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

As Olukoga sees it, prison is a place that holds the biggest dreams. “But the minute they come out, they realise it was just a dream. That’s what makes it a cycle for them, and they go back to what they were doing. If one of those fantasies they have in their mind can become a reality, if someone listens to them and says: ‘Of course you can be an actor, of course you can record music’, it will have a major impact on someone’s mindset.”


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