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Erin Gavaghan reflects on how the lives of women with experience of the criminal justice system can be profoundly changed by theatre.

photo of a woman writing
Clean Break has reached out to women in prison through writing projects

Tracey Anderson

Clean Break uses theatre to keep the experiences of women in prison on the cultural radar, helping to reveal the damage caused by the failures of the criminal justice system. Through our work we raise difficult questions, inspire debate, and help to effect profound and positive change in the lives of women at risk, or with experience of the criminal justice system.

Clean Break’s women-only identity is crucial to our rationale. The treatment of women by the criminal justice system is one of the clearest demonstrations that our society is still unequal and that women are judged by different standards to men. 

We believe that theatre enables women to challenge their oppression by society in general and by the criminal justice system in particular.  Ensuring that these women’s stories are told and their voices heard is even more vital now given the experience of the past year. 

Through workshops and projects in prisons, the community and Clean Break’s specialist centre in London, we help to build confidence, resilience and wellbeing, transforming the lives of women. We use theatre-based activities to improve these wellbeing indicators.  

Why access to creativity is vital

These are not soft skills, but a foundation to build or rebuild positive identity. Participation in the arts for those in the criminal justice system offers many additional benefits including improving relationships with family, developing new skills leading to employment opportunities and it even reduces reoffending.  

There is a wealth of research and many networks that champion this like the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance who have a guide for prison staff to promote creativity in a restricted regime.  

Digital poverty

The past year has seen Clean Break, like many other organisations and artists, move the delivery of participation work online.  While many celebrate the digital advances of this year, the trend to online also poses challenges. For us, digital poverty became more visible. 
Millions in the UK are without sufficient quality internet access, relevant digital skills or are unable to afford to get online, lacking both the data connection and devices.  In prison, this is limited further with in-cell digital access almost non-existent - just 18 of 117 prisons in England and Wales have infrastructure to support in-cell digital access. 

This makes prisoners the most digitally disadvantaged in our society.  Consider this in relation to how we have all relied on digital connection this year for our relationships, education, news and cultural connections.

Deepening isolation

When the pandemic first impacted us all with a lockdown to our homes, the result for women in prison was to be locked in their cells for 23 hours per day. Visits and activities were suspended creating a deep isolation from the world.  

Unable to reach women in prison through direct delivery of workshops, Clean Break has reached out through writing projects.  Putting pen to paper to ensure that we continue to hear and understand the experience of women in the system.

Last summer, Clean Break partnered with Its not Your Birthday But… to create Write 2 Connect - a letter writing project to connect women through the walls of prison to women in the community.  For two weeks in May 2020, women from every corner of the UK and from all walks of life sent letters with words of inspiration, hope and solidarity to women in prison. 

The letters were about finding comfort in words and nature, things that inspired them and words of connection and solidarity. They all shared something personal and offered hope - a gift which everyone can afford and which can remind us in difficult moments that we are connected, we are part of a wider community and we are valued.  

Showcasing 40 years of history

This summer, Clean Break has invited women from all 12 women’s prisons across England (there are no women’s prisons in Wales) to write to us in this moment, to enable us to amplify their words and let their experiences be heard.  

Inspired by a project of the same name from 1987 uncovered in Clean Break’s archive (held at Bishopsgate Institute, London), selected pieces will be published and performed by a cast of actors and Member artists in Voices from Prison, an event to be shared online on 28 July 2021 as part of our exhibition, I am a theatre, showcasing 40-years of Clean Break’s history.

Hearing these experiences and understanding them has never been more urgent. The impact of lockdowns has significantly increased isolation and limited access to services for the women and their families. No one should be cut off from connection and creativity if we want to be proud of the society we live in. How we treat our most vulnerable is a reflection on all of us. 

Addressing the root causes

There is strong evidence, built up over years of enquiry and research, that supports addressing the root causes of women’s offending in the community rather than continuing high levels of incarceration. 77% of women in prison are there for non-violent crimes such as shoplifting. Women released from prison are more likely to reoffend, 58% within one year - sooner than those serving community sentences.  

In 2018 the Government published the Female Offenders Strategy, highlighting that investing in community-based support for women would reduce the prison population and reoffending rates.  The proportion of women being sent to prison to serve very short prison sentences has risen sharply. In 1993 only a third of custodial sentences given to women were for less than six months; in 2019 it was nearly double this (62%).  Reoffending rises to 73% for women who serve sentences of less than 12 months.

At Clean Break we seek to reveal these stories, disrupt and mobilise our audiences and create real change in the world.  We invite you to join us in this.

Erin Gavaghan is Executive Director and joint CEO of Clean Break 

I am a theatre; 40 years of Clean Break opens at Swiss Cottage Gallery on 24 June and runs until 31 July 2021. Tickets are free. To book visit https://www.cleanbreak.org.uk/productions/iamatheatre/

Join Clean Break online for Voices From Prison at 6pm on 28 July 2021. Tickets are free. To book visit: https://www.cleanbreak.org.uk/events/voices-prison/

Link to Author(s): 
photo of Erin Gavaghan