Prisons, for much of the general public, are seen as “a machine to grind rogues honest”, a place to store criminals, deprive them from socialising with members of the public and restrain them from having freedom of choice. What the general public fail to recognise is that the prison system warehouses offenders, offering no sign of rehabilitation, or no sign of change in their behaviour, meaning for when offenders leave the prison, there is no other option than crime for offenders to return to.
What is advantageous to offenders and helps develop skills; recognise, encourage and develop talents- which in turn, prevents offending, is arts and creativity. Every one of us is creative. Our own individual creative ways of thinking are embedded and employed within our brain structure, but are all developed and orchestrated in individual and unique ways. Creativity can be obvious like; being a skilled painter, musician, dancer or writer, but creativity is also managing financial accounts well without saving any money, organizing a kitchen to use all of its space purposefully or even planning meals for the week. Creativity is everywhere.
Applied Theatre workshops inspire creativity in all the participants that attend, even those that may not necessarily know they have it. Utilizing dramatic processes, techniques, approaches and skills in a wider social context encourages participants to examine and rehearse for change, directly linking for change within themselves. As Michael Balfour states, “theatre… can be fashioned into a tool designed to re-educate, re-socialise and rehabilitate people”.
This is exactly what applied theatre does in the setting of the prison system. Talking to Rebecca from Odd Arts based in Manchester, which works with a number of various types of offenders, she highlights to me the benefits of her work. “For some it is their first real engagement with any type of education, for others it offers them a voice, a role, or a purpose. Others hugely increase in confidence and communication skills.” Working with psychologists and restorative specialists, Rebecca at Odd Arts can create programmes that are specific for offenders or issues that are within a community. “Drama is an excellent tool to enhancing empathy towards others, where participants will act out the consequences a crime may have had on a victim. On many occasions participants become moved or overwhelmed by taking part in a performance where they have acted out the victim, and say it has made them reflect on their own behaviour. On occasions where we perform our own scripted work to a group we use ‘forum theatre’ which enables the audience (or spectators) to join in the performance and change the outcome, and therefore practice for reality.”
Odd Arts introduces them to challenge their ways of thinking through the medium of drama, impacting the participants to change. Similar Applied Theatre companies, programmes and workshops use the dramatic methods to evaluate participants decisions, or even encourage new ways of thinking, which is integral in preventing offending.
So what should be implemented in our prison systems? More support is an obvious answer. Workshops such as applied theatre, which is an untraditional way of education, should be recognised as beneficial in passing skills on to the participant. And Rebecca comments “much more work around resettling offenders in the community and better links with community agencies so that people can be assured that sufficient help will be there for them on release from prison.” As Rebecca quite rightly highlights, that although applied theatre is an incredible benefit to the offenders within prison, support must be put in place for when release is granted so participants can integrate back into society with no implications.
A number of factors lead people to offend; I mean conforming members of society do not necessarily break the law intentionally. But for a member of society who has no job, little opportunities or skills, family neglect, as well as community, school or individual factors such as aggressive behaviour or their peer group, it can sway a person into becoming someone they never thought they would. Influence is strong and the attraction is easy for someone with this way of thinking, having developed over years in response to previous environmental and life experiences. Senior Whitehall commented in the Chief Inspector’s annual report, that “prison is full of the mad, the bad, and the sad”, the systems are filled with big sentences and no help.
Help, such as Applied Theatre, is needed for “the bad”, to create opportunities for another way of life. A large number of offenders do have mental health issues- with high statistics of 58 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men-and attempts of suicide occurring throughout all of the prison systems. What are these poor people doing within the prison system? Where is their support to help face their daily struggles and deter them from a life of crime? Our prison systems need to make some drastic changes to benefit not only the offender’s lives, but all members of society and the everyday tax payer.
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Cover photo by Paul Frankenstein