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Unlocking a bad system

Forty years on, a theatre company set up to challenge attitudes to women in prison still has much work to do, writes Julie Tomlin

09 March, 2019 — By Julie Tomlin

Jennifer Joseph and Jade Small in Inside Bitch, currently showing at the Royal Court. Photo: Ali Wright

WHILE marking its 40th anniversary with new plays at the Royal Court and Arcola theatres, a Kentish Town company is working behind the scenes to ensure that the voices of women who have been to prison are heard.

Set up in 1979 by two women who were in the prison system at the time, Clean Break kicked off its anniversary celebrations last month with Inside Bitch, a play that challenges how women’s prisons are portrayed on TV. Conceived by playwright Stacey Gregg and live artist Deborah Pearson working with Clean Break members Lucy Edkins, Jennifer Joseph, TerriAnn Oudjar and Jade Small, it’s a playful take on prison life by some who know what it’s really like to be inside.

The company’s recently appointed joint artistic director Róisín McBrinn hopes that performances like one being performed at Clean Break’s Kentish Town studio on Friday next week (March 15) with theatre company Cardboard Citizens about women, homelessness and criminal justice system, will give people pause to think when a Circo prison van passes by.

“We want to change people’s minds and we want to increase the empathy around women’s place in the question of crime, justice, interaction of the law,” Róisín says. “We have defined our mission as the decriminal­isation of women, and through our theatre work we are hoping to speak to more people throughout the country.”

Other changes, includ­ing Róisín’s appointment as joint director alongside Anna Herrmann, whose focus has been on theatre and social change, are aimed at bringing per­formance and education closer together, increasing the organisation’s “campaigning clout” and tackling the many issues affecting women in the prison system.

Róisín McBrinn and Anna Herrmann. Photos: Ste Murphy and Katherine Leedale

A book, Rebel Voices – an anthology of 40 mono­logues to be published in May – represents “a call sheet” of leading female playwrights, including Bryony Lavery, Lucy Kirkwood and two of its members Sonya Hale and Daisy King. It reflects the work Clean Break has done so far in developing women’s voices in the theatre industry. But there is more work to be done to address a “crisis of access” in the industry, while the fact that 40 years on the two founders choose to be silent supporters to protect themselves and families, is “significant” says Róisín, who was head of artistic programming from 2016 until she took on the new role in May last year. The appointments, which follows Lucy Perman’s departure last year after 21 years as chief executive, reflect Clean Break’s awareness that while they have much to celebrate, that doesn’t mean things have got better for women caught up in the punitive system.

“You could say that it’s at a crisis point, but you could have said that 10 years ago and you could have said it when the company started,” says Róisín, who adds that poverty, childhood abuse, domestic violence, racism and discrimination as well as drug and alcohol addiction and poor mental health are all factors in the lives of women who end up in prison.

Despite a slight fall since, the women’s prison population in England and Wales more than doubled between 1995 and 2010 to over 4,000 and the UK still has one of the highest women’s prison rates in Western Europe. Rising numbers are less about changes in crime patterns and more to do with attitudes towards women who commit crimes, says Jacqueline Stewart, Clean Break’s head of participation: “This is not about a spike in crime or anything like that,” she says, adding that it instead reflects a failure to carry out changes such as those recommended by Baroness Jean Corston following a landmark review in 2007. “It clearly outlined guidelines and recommendations for women to be removed from prisons and placed in community settings, but none of that has happened.”

In addition to touring and per­forming, Clean Break runs writing and per­formance workshops in prisons, while a former piano factory in Kentish Town is the main hub where educational and theatrical programmes for its members take place. Creating a safe haven where women can be free from judgment and feel safe among peers will continue to be a vital part of the work, says Jacqueline.

“There is a huge thing around shame and stigma, it is a really dark cloak they carry around with them, but once they get to the gate they can hang it up, let it go and carry on,” she says, adding that there will be a continued emphasis in the years ahead on supporting women who take the “courageous” step of performing and being open about their experiences. “We want to ensure that the women are skilled, that they are independent, that they have self-advocacy and that they can give that message and be a strong part of what we’re doing, because their voice is authentic and it’s incredibly powerful.”

• All The Lights Are On is being performed at 7.30pm on March 15 at Clean Break, 2 Patshull Road, NW5 2LB.
• Inside Bitch runs until March 23 at the Royal Court Theatre.
www.cleanbreak.org.uk

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