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Reflections on Prison Workshops with Rideout in collaboration with the National Justice Museum
I was invited by founder of Rideout, Saul Hewish to accompany him, his colleague Gwenda and fellow student, Aoife to all female prison, Drake Hall for a week in July. This was made possible due to a grant from IATL’s Project Support programme which promotes the development of learning opportunities beyond the university campus enabling myself and other Applied Theatre MA students to participate with Rideout’s current project, The Catalogue of Imagined Provences.
There was an extraordinary range of various art works using whatever materials the prisoners were able to access whilst doing time, including portraits sculpted out of soap, intricate patterns scratched into a mirror, slippers, painted jars, a chess game, and cross bow.
The museum had commissioned Rideout to visit prisons accross the UK to run workshops with the inmates asking them to explore these pieces of art and what stories they might inspire.
They were invited to choose an object and come up with a backstory about the artist who created the piece.
Here’s a painted jar with a backstory imagined and hand written by a workshop participant.
Some of the objects dated back to the 18 century, so we played with how to date the documents to accompany the artifacts as part of the display that are due to be exhibited in the Justice Museum next year.
We played with aging paper using teabags and butter.
The communication at Drake Hall appeared to be completely haphazard, not knowing who we were or why we were there day to day. It became evident as the week went on that the prison system’s priorities lay in scheduling “rest days” and planned around the functioning of the canteen.
The few women that attended the workshops were not clear exactly why they were there or what the project was about. This made it difficult to find a natural flow as the participants drifted in and out of the workshops, as and when they were aware of it’s happening.
That said, as the week unravelled, a core group of women will forever stay in my mind. There’s something about a female institution which oozes compassion, empathy, and consideration. For example, one woman revealed in a game of “Two Truths and a Lie” she thought she was fat which was immediately picked up on by the others who simply wouldn’t allow this to be a truth.
I think also, being twenty-eight weeks pregnant brought a maternal atmosphere to the forefront. I must admit, I was a little dubious about bringing my bump in with me, but with Saul and Gwenda’s years of experience, they assured me that it would bring an interesting dynamic to the space. Which it did. It brought in the realisation for everyone involved, that no matter what walk of life, everyone is made the same.
As a fist time mum, I loved hearing about their experiences, how they enjoyed being a mum and the twinkle in their eyes when they talked about thier kids. They willingly shared pictures of their family and proudly told us about their children.
They shared so much more too (which is apparently not unusual in female prisons), including a very clunky and all – day long journey to a Mammogram appointment in chains with no food; a very nasty food poisoning experience from the prison canteen’s bright purple pudding and how they’d managed to pop their ear drum with a cotton wool bud. More tragically, one woman revealed how they liked being in jail.
I was shocked and appalled at what little the criminal justice system does in terms of rehabilitating lives that have been dealt a bad card from the beginning. Born into an abusive family; their bad mental health spirals, they self-abuse with drink and drugs, get caught and locked up, given a probation period where they find themselves in the position they were before prison but with worse consequences time and time again. A vicious cycle of no hope, bad education, and accusations. “Crim” becomes their identity.
The creativity, quit wit and brilliant story writing was intriguing. One adorned a homemade anklet made from the tiny pipes found in a nicotine vape; another had the most beautiful handwriting and found to be an excellent storyteller outside the classroom, found animatedly performing the story of her arrest to the others. Another, dosed up on meds, told us about her conversion from Satanism to Catholicism in a crack den.
There’s no doubt that this experience was coloured by a diverse group of characters who I enjoyed spending time with under the facilitation of Saul. I’m not sure how comfortable I would have been without his years of experience to justify my being there but feel very lucky to have had a dip into an unknown world.
It has left me with a desire to be mindful of the change that needs to happen in the current criminal justice system and the importance of supporting the voices and choices of vulnerable people through creativity.
Fellow Applied Theatre MA Student, Lucy Pitman-Wallace accompanied Rideout at Her Majesties Prison’s Stafford and Redditch on two separate occasions as part of the same project. Here, she discusses her time spent with Rideout:
” I attended two weeks of a project devised by Saul Hewish of Rideout Theatre Company, the first week in HMP Stafford and the second in HMP Redditch.
The project was conceived with The National Museum of Justice. The museum had been gifted a collection of artifacts by the Prison Service. These items had all been made by prisoners. The pieces had no provenance and no description of how they were made.
The first week was based around drama games and creative writing. The prisoners were encouraged to create imagined stories and provenance to go with the items. These details would sit alongside the artifacts in an exhibition in the Museum of Justice. As the prisoners would not be able to attend the exhibition, they would receive a glossy “Sotheby” style catalogue.
The above element of the project attracted an extroverted group of prisoners who seemed to enjoy the drama games, the discussions around the objects and creating and writing stories. They even created letters and other forms of provenance. Many of the group worked in their cells on finishing their stories.
The second week was based more on crafting. Many pieces of prison art are made from bread mixed with glue to make a dough. Prisoners were encouraged to make sculptures from the dough. Individuals made sculptures which related to the elements of the body which relate to creativity e.g., the brain, the ears, the eyes etc. Alongside this, a huge head was constructed out of chicken wire and sections of dough. This was led by an artist who works on large community arts projects with a company called B-Arts based in Stoke. All the objects will form part of the above exhibition.
This element of the project attracted a much quieter group of prisoners and had a meditative quality to it. One prisoner – Sam made an extraordinary chess set using food colouring to create the two different sides. One of the inmates said, “It is the first time I have felt human in a long time”.
In terms of my learning, I gained confidence in working in prisons. I saw how important art was to helping prisoners to feel they could do something positive and there were people who would work with them in a gentle caring way. They obviously appreciated being treated as individuals. On a less positive note, I learnt how problematic communications were in both prisons. On several occasions prisoners were not unlocked, so they missed sessions with us. I also learnt that if the prison officers were supportive everything ran smoothly, if not it was a challenge.
I was saddened to see how many of the prisoners had special educational needs that were largely ignored. We came across dyslexic, autistic inmates and those suffering from ADHD.
I am very grateful to Rideout and Warwick University for allowing me to be part of this project. I have learnt that I would like to do more work in prisons and it is such important work.”
Pitman – Wallace, 2022
Another student, Angela Ko visited male youth offender’s prison, Swinfen Hall. She too picked up on the Intelligence and creative capabilities of the prisoners, saying how they were “smart, had good presentation skills and that most of them were willing to work on creative writing by themselves.” Angela Ko, 2022.
Unfortunately, she also clocked the brutality of the system. For example, when the prisoners asked to use the washroom facilities, the guards made them wait and suffer.
This day in age, one would have thought that there would be a greater degree of understanding about what it is to be human. That equality and justice is at the heart of caring with one another to prevent the recurrence of relational tragedies. But, alas, as all accounts suggest, the prison system seems still to have a long way to go.
For more Information about the project: The Catalogue of Imagined Provenances – RIDEOUT
For more information about the National Justice Museum: Homepage | National Justice Museum