Women using theatre to make a clean break from prison

Bridget Galton discovers that it has been a busy time for Clean Break theatre company. The Kentish Town-based arts organisation has seen its latest writing commission premiere at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney and is involved in a major campaign following publication of Baroness Je

MARCH has been a busy month for Clean Break theatre company. The Kentish Town-based arts organisation has seen its latest writing commission premiere at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney and is involved in a major campaign following publication of

Baroness Jean Corston's review of women's prisons.

Clean Break - founded by two women prisoners at HMP Askham Grange, Yorkshire, nearly two decades ago - is among a coalition of organisations including Action for Prisoners' Families, Women in Prison, the Prison Reform Trust, Fawcett Society and the Howard League for Penal Reform lobbying to improve conditions for women in the criminal justice system.

The Corston report was commissioned by the government in the wake of several suicides at Styal prison and recommends large institutions such as Holloway should be closed in favour of small, local custodial units.

It also calls for a governmental "champion" for women offenders, the end of routine strip-searching and improved sanitation.

Lucy Perman, Clean Break's executive director, says the coalition is calling for community-based sentences for non-violent female offenders, who are often the main carers of their children.

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"We need to stop the break-up of families - 17,700 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment every year.

"The report recognises huge numbers of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system are not properly treated or supported. It makes radical and far-reaching recommendations and it looks like there is now a chance of

real action.

"We must see how the government is going to respond. It requires them to be bold and show leadership. We have formed a coalition to build more political lobbying and support the recommendations so they can't be ignored."

The report says that in a system designed by men, for men, "women's needs are invariably overlooked".

"Women are always going to be in the minority in the criminal justice system," agrees Perman. "They fall off the agenda. There is more likelihood that men in prison will be supported by their partners and, because there are fewer women's prisons, they are often far from their families. Often their children are taken into care. Sometimes women don't have any time to prepare before they are imprisoned."

Clean Break offers a range of arts-based courses, including acting, costume, performance poetry, comedy and writing to help get women into further study or on the path to employment after prison.

In addition, staff help students with letters of reference, drawing attention to their progress on the courses so they are deemed stable enough to get their children back.

Perman says the cost of Clean Break's work in providing "courses that meet their needs and improve their life chances" is negligible compared to the impact on families, the cost of bringing up children in care and supporting a woman through her sentence.

She believes there has been a shift in the public appetite for punitive prison sentencing amid the realisation that it doesn't work.

"Sixty-five per cent of women prisoners reoffend within two years. SmartJustice did a recent poll and 86 per cent of the public want to see alternatives to custody for non-violent offenders and two-thirds believe prison doesn't work. I can't believe the public believes building more prisons and locking people up like in the US is the answer.

"It's more effective to tackle the causes of it, address the underlying poverty, debt, and abuse - 95 per cent of women we work with have experience of domestic violence or sexual abuse."

Clean Break annually commissions a new play dealing with the criminal justice system, which has the double bonus of creating new work by women with great parts for women.

The current production is Linda Brogan's Black Crows and past writers have included Zinnie Harris, Tanika Gupta, Winsome Pinnock and Rebecca Prichard. All playwrights spend an intensive period in research including a residency in a women's prison.

"Getting the audiences in to engage with the issues and holding thought-provoking after-show discussions is an incredibly important part of what we do,"

says Perman.

Outreach workers and former students travel to women's prisons and probation centres in London and the south-east telling women about the courses on offer.

"It's right to do active recruitment, we can't just sit back and let them come to us - there is a great mistrust of authority and we can reassure that we are not part of any statutory provision - women come because they want to."

The group's building in Patshull Road is alcohol and drug-free. Students, who are from London including 30 per cent from Camden, are given money for travel and lunch and the cost of any childcare.

The access to higher education course goes for one year and prepares participants to move onto drama school or university.

Last year, five out of eight attained places at university or drama school, including the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Although Perman says it's unusual for a student to be ready for employment when they leave, setting them up with a mentor and work experience in arts organisations, such as Talawa and the Roundhouse, puts them on the path to employment.

She adds: "Being more proactive about talking about Clean Break came from a realisation that the work we are doing is important and unusual and produces fantastic results."

There are 4,329 women in 15 prisons in England - at least 70 per cent have mental health problems, nearly two-thirds have a drug problem and at least 50 per cent have experienced domestic violence or childhood abuse.

More than a third of adult women in prison have no previous convictions - more are given custodial sentences for theft and handling stolen goods than any other crime.

From September 2004 to August 2005, women accounted for 56 per cent of incidents of self-harm in prisons despite making up just five per cent of the prison population. There have been 71 suicides among female prisoners in the past decade.