Clean Break: Women in Prison

Clean Break director Imogen Ashby speaks to Ally Swadling about the neglect of women in prison, resettlement and the power of restorative theatre.

There were tears in the eyes of the prison governor at Askham Grange HMP as she stood in front of a small public audience and gave her thanks. Normally, this kind of official graciousness comes across as empty and contrived, but this talking trouser suit turned out to be a tearful woman who was clearly as deeply moved as the audience by the performance of Clean Break’s There Are Mountains that we had just watched.

Sat in the Askham Grange manor house,

Dorm scene with Zawe Ashton and inmates. Image Credit: Clean Break

Dorm scene with Zawe Ashton and inmates. Image Credit: Clean Break

six female inmates alongside actress Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat, Dreams of A Life) performed the play—which Chloe Moss had written while working with the women and was directed by Imogen Ashby—depicting the struggle of dorm life as the women prepare for release and try to reassimilate to the outside world and reconnect with lost family. The whole performance was professional; the set was impressive and despite obvious initial nerves, the women’s performances were both convincing and incredibly moving. Maybe now it’s time to say that it was easy to forget that I was sat in a prison, but it wasn’t. The performance was deeply rooted in the space of the prison and by drawing the audience into the onstage struggle; we were continually reminded that within these same walls an even greater struggle continues offstage. The setting was made even more powerful in the knowledge that back in 1979, two female inmates set up Clean Break in Askham Grange to give voice to those whose experiences remains untold and misunderstood – a poignant thought that was encapsulated by the governor’s tears that opening night.

“That was a pretty major thing and pretty incredible that she had actually worked in the prison service for twenty years and there were things she just hadn’t thought about. At that level they’re quite removed from the women so they’re not seeing their daily struggles with both their living situation in terms of the dormitory and also in preparing to be released,” director Imogen Ashby describes as we reflect on the performance. “I thought that was really telling. Often we’ll  think that if you’ve worked in the prison service for twenty years then you’ll absolutely know everything, then [governors] see these things in a story or in a piece of woman’s writing and it’ll literally make them see things differently.”

“I think it says a lot about what theatre can do”

The strong impact of these performances reflects the importance of Clean Break’s work. Although the reoffending rate of those leaving Askham Grange is only around 7%, the national average of women who reoffend within the first 12 months of release is at 51% increasing to 68% after. Such bleak figures expose the lack of successful resettlement programmes and also reflect badly on the few resources that are offered to the women. However, Clean Break offers a brighter alternative, as the reoffending rate of students of Clean Break courses—run in their London studios for women who are at risk of offending or have experience of the criminal justice system—is only 5% with 71% of the women continuing on to education programmes, employment and volunteering schemes. Likewise, the average annual cost of each prison place in the UK is around £40 000 – Clean Break have calculated that for every £1 invested in the company, £4.57 is recovered through savings to the criminal justice system.

Clean Break present a successful model for other educational programmes in the criminal justice system by using theatre to creatively approach and find solutions to the issue of resettlement. Upon arriving at Askham Grange, the audience were met with a whole host of different front of house staff who are normally expected at the theatre, as Clean Break used the public performances of There Are Mountains to convert Askham into a professional space with all the industry roles filled by other inmates. With the average literacy and numeracy rates of women in prison being extremely low and 58% of women identifying lack of skills and unemployment as the primary contributing factor of their reoffending, increasing the women’s employability and self-esteem is a positive approach to lowering the rate of recidivism.

The overwhelmingly positive feedback from the women involved in There Are Mountains demonstrates the success of Clean Break’s method. The participants described the experience as “the most positive” they “had ever had in jail” and that it brought out “higher self-esteem, confidence and the ability to look into [themselves] emotionally.”

While another participant wrote:  “To be trusted as an equal has given me more confidence in myself.

This is what resettlement should be.”

Having worked closely with the participants, Imogen describes her own view. “I think it had a really profound effect on the women. One of the women was a lifer who had done pretty much every possible course that there is to do and she said it was the only thing that had really changed her. I think that’s due to the experience of being part of a team and working with others in a space where they were able to trust each other – a lot of women don’t feel like they can trust each other in prison. It was really good for breaking down the barriers between them.”

“Askham were so open to us being there and I think it actually gave them a lot of confidence because they ran the event really well and they know that there is an audience as well – they will be able to continue to engage with people who wouldn’t usually have come to the prison.”

Prison is a difficult and cumbersome institution. For the public who have no access to true representations of prison life, the opportunity Clean Break provides for a better understanding of the prison experience—whether this comes from actually being in a prison environment or from listening to the women being able to openly express their struggle to a listening audience—is both refreshing and welcomed. Companies like Clean Break and projects like those they provide, are significant for not just the women, but also for the public who have a penchant for media mythmaking and outrage.

“A lot of people said it changed their perspective on what women prisoners are,” Imogen describes. “I think often they’re really surprised to see there’s a whole range of women who, for whatever reason, end up in prison and also by the age of the women – there’s the impression that it’s just young kind of girl gang types and there’s still quite a Bad Girls image about it.”

I cringe slightly at hearing my own quiet misconceptions, but it’s important to recognise how deeply ingrained these images of female prisoners are, which even the more “liberal” audience expected to attend this kind of production still have. However, these perceptions can be easily dispelled and as one participant wrote in response to her experience: “I learnt that not all outsiders judge me.”

While this is all positive, the fact that Clean Break only work with women exposes another underlying issue concerning the treatment of women in prison. Despite women only making up 5% of the prison population, female inmates account for over half the incidents of self-harm within prison with 66% of the women showing signs of neurotic disorders. Even 5 years after the Corston Report was released, which outlined ways in which vulnerable women in prison should be treated and changes that need to be made, the statistics remain bleak and little has been changed.

I ask Imogen the significance of Clean Break only working with women.

“There is a difference between the needs of women and the needs of men in prison, and both are complicated, but differently complicated as often the women have experienced being victims themselves.

It’s also political. There is the whole theatre agenda about there not being enough female playwrights and not enough parts for women, so we’re very much speaking to that as well – we only work with female play wrights and also give parts to women of all ages.

The female only space is also really important for the women who are trying to regain their confidence and have often had very negative relationships with the men in their lives. It’s an opportunity for the women to develop their confidence, rebuild relationships and often very low self-esteem. We found that a female-only space is the best place for that to happen and it’s also very powerful for people who are not used to being in a woman only space.

It’s a really strong position that we hold.”

Find out more and support Clean Break here

– Ally Swadling



Interview: David Wilson

UK leading criminologist and ex-prison governor Professor David Wilson, speaks to  Ally Swadling about his experience of prison, penal reform and how to dispel prison stereotypes.

“When I went there I’d ask if he was OK, and say that I was concerned that he was locked up by himself. On one memorable occasion he waited for me to visit, and when we opened his cell door he had stripped naked and covered his entire body with black shoe polish. He then threatened to “stab me with his moustache”, and told me to “fuck off”. I did.”

The press called him “the most violent prisoner in Britain” but for Professor David Wilson, Charles Bronson was simply another one of the inmates at HMP Woodhill where Wilson worked as a prison governor. A ‘Category A’ prison, Woodhill is the notorious home of two special units which Wilson helped to design and to manage, containing the 12 most disruptive prisoners in the country. “Even if my primary responsibilities were to the prison’s special units, I saw Bronson regularly enough in the segregation unit,” Wilson recounts in his column in The Guardian. “Only one person wanted Bronson to be in solitary confinement – Charles Bronson.”

Professor David Wilson was the youngest prison governor in the country before returning to criminology

Sat with a coffee in hand, the Wilson sat in front of me is very much the “celebrity” academic I’ve seen in more recent years on the TV and writing in newspapers – not perhaps how I’d imagine him as a prison governor dealing with the likes of Bronson. Wilson is direct and precise in his expression and he quickly abandons his coffee to free his hands, which are constantly gesticulating as he speaks. Notably, he is also nothing like the detached, chain-smoking bald bloke who was chosen to portray him in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 biopic Bronson, which depicts an incident where Bronson held the prison librarian hostage and Wilson took on the role as hostage commander. “Of course I might have been calculating – or appeared so to him – but I am not bald, bespectacled and I have certainly never smoked.” Wilson is an interesting man, to say the least.

In 1983, he completed his PhD at Cambridge and was then quickly recruited by the HM Prison Service’s Assistant Governor Scheme before starting his training at HM Wormwood Scrubs.

“Originally I was interested in the philosophical idea of why do some behaviours become labelled as crime and why do some behaviours, which cause just as much damage, are seen as permissible. Because I was reading philosophy it was this particular idea that attracted me to pursue a career in dealing with offenders. I wanted to apply the idea, and so my first ever job was an assistant governor in Wormwood Scrubs” Wilson explains. “I literally went from the philosophy to the practice in the course of a weekend.”

As a perpetual student in his twenties with no previous experience of employment, it comes as no surprise that the transition was stark. “Stark contrast is perhaps understating what happened,” he smiles. “I think prison officers didn’t like assistant governors, especially ones called ‘Doctor’ who had come straight from Cambridge; they wanted their prison governors to be ex-army or something. It was only because I could prove my abilities of playing rugby and that I understood the idea of boarding schools and people living in close proximity that I was able to survive those first few months. They were crucial in allowing me to then go on and pursue the ideas that had interested me in the first place.”

By the age of 29, Wilson became the youngest prison governor in the country. I ask how his experience of working with violent prisoners had affected his original philosophical thinking at this point. “My first exposure to a serial killer was when I was training as an assistant governor in Wormwood Scrubs and he was called Dennis Nilsen. I was kind of intrigued by that,” Wilson explains, referring to “the Kindly Killer” who was convicted in 1983. “But my first real experience of working with really violent prisoners was at Grendon, which operates as a psycho-dynamic therapeutic community and therefore its purpose is incredibly optimistic.”

Working at Young Offender’s Institutes Finnamore Wood and Huntercombe, Wilson went on to work at Grendon prison where he ran a sex offender’s treatment programme. Following his “positive experience” of working at Grendon, Wilson was asked to work with the violent prisoners of Woodhill. “That was a much more challenging experience and not at all as optimistic as the experiences of working at Grendon,” he concludes gravely.

His time and contact with these violent offenders began to shape his ideas on prison, and ultimately led him to quit the prison service in protest of the conditions. “I resigned when I returned from a visit on behalf of The Council of Europe to Albania, I was asked to help to advise the new democratic government of Albania about setting up a democratic penal system [Albania was previously under dictatorship]. Albania is an incredibly poor country – I was expecting their prisons to be appalling, but frankly they were better than our own.” His hands motion emphatically, also gesturing towards a deep-seated passion that now seems to have been masked by a well-practised television persona. “So because of being under a dictatorship, their attitudes to prisons were far more enlightened than British attitudes towards prisons. I resigned when I came back from visiting Albania, saying I don’t want to do anything more in our penal system. It was a natural return therefore to apply for an academic job.”

Wilson, who is now a Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University has 15 published books predominantly on the subject of serial killers. He’s also become a figure of the public eye, regularly contributing to The Guardian and presenting documentaries for the BBC and Channel 5. I ask Wilson about his responsibility to dispel the kinds of distorted images of prison and prisoners the media so loves to weep about. “Well to bring it bang up to date, I think it is very interesting how Channel 4 promoted Gordon Ramsay” Wilson begins, referring to Channel 4’s favourite over-used leather handbag who went into Brixton prison to teach prisoners how to cook. “Both Channel 4 and Ramsay have played on two stereotypes of prison: the first was he was going to encounter super predators, that everybody there was going to try and kill him and try and hurt him in some way. But equally he’s also played on the other flipside of that stereotype; that prisoners are lazy and don’t want to get out of their cells; that they’ve really got to be cattle-prodded to take any action to change their circumstances,” he explains cuttingly, mimicking the tabloids. “So often what I’m doing in the public eye is trying to counteract those stereotypes by talking about how prison is in fact a much overused space that usually creates more problems than it solves. I think because the vast majority of the public don’t get access to the prison—that’s why programmes like Ramsay’s are so important—and if he panders to stereotypes it seems to me that it’s an opportunity missed.” Wilson raises his eyebrows as a resigned look flashes across his face. “I am pleased that it disappeared with almost no trace.”

However Wilson’s involvement in television is also problematic. In 2008, Wilson resumed his role as prison governor in a fake prison with the former Home Secretary David Blunkett as part of social experiment that followed the rehabilitation of ten offending teenagers in a programme called Banged Up. Although the series was nominated for a RTS award, it received a mixed response, most notably from ex-convict turned writer Erwin James, who called it “a sham.”

“I think that Banged Up really did work” Wilson affirms. “The medium can work, it is just those TV programmes that want to be sensationalist, populist, and exploitative programmes—which tend more often than not to get a commission—that is the problem.” While I wouldn’t call Banged Up ‘ground-breaking’, the message is an obvious and important one. I do take some issue however with Wilson’s more recent documentary Killers Behind Bars: The Untold Story, which aired on Channel 5 earlier this year.

David Wilson promotes his latest TV programme, Killers Behind Bars. Photo Credit: Channel 5

“Killers Behind Bars started out with a much more academic purpose, which was to introduce the public to real criminology as opposed to CSI criminology. In the series I’m actually using genuine profiling techniques,” he describes. “Actual offender profiling is a bottom up, data-driven approach to discovering or suggesting who the police might target the investigation towards.” While it is an incredibly interesting and compelling viewing, there is something quite uncomfortable about watching an hour- long documentary that re-opens these high profile cases in such horrific and intimate detail. Something about it just smacks of those “Never Been Seen Before!” straplines plastered all-over tabloids and ‘Real Life’ story magazines – the voyeurism of these kinds of programmes is just unavoidable.

I find myself getting frustrated that Wilson won’t acknowledge the difficulties of his own programme which doesn’t seem to have much purpose other than to satisfy morbid curiosity. How can we find this elusive balance between entertainment and enlightenment? “Well the balance is heavily skewed towards entertainment,” he admits, “I think there are some interesting and edgy programmes as a consequence of that imbalance. For example, Dexter springs to mind as a very interesting and edgy programme. Dexter is a serial killer who targets other serial killers, so the viewer ethically and morally is being asked to root for Dexter – I find all that very problematic, because really what we’re playing on is a stereotype of what a serial killer is like. Serial killers are not dramatic, exciting, insightful people – they don’t talk about fine foods and Florentine architecture or blood spatter patterns. They’re actually rather boring, dull, grey, everyday people who are self-obsessed, weedy and needy.”

It’s not quite the resolve or explanation I wanted, but it does characterise a man who has remained faithful to the truth and to his own experiences. David Wilson can certainly be relied on to provide a well-informed and lucid voice to the prison debate, but it’s disappointing to see the burgeoning “celebrity” rather than the academic.

With thanks to Ed Greenwood for his help and research.

Ally Swadling

Originally published by Nouse in November 2012.

Interview: Erwin James

Ex-convict, author and Guardian columnist, Erwin James speaks to Ally Swadling and Mary O’Connor about his reform and becoming a writer in prison.

“You just put my name into Google – you’ll find all sorts of crap in there.”

The very idea that before prison, Erwin James Monahan was, in his words, “a dangerous and dysfunctional individual” seemed unbelievable on meeting the mild-mannered and good-humoured gentleman sat before us.

Erwin James served 20 years in prison for his crimes. Photo Credit: David Levene

Having suffered continuous abuse from an early age, James’ life quickly spiralled downwards. With his first conviction at 11, he found himself between various care homes. By 15, he was living an equally nomadic and destructive existence on the streets. In 1982, James met his co-accused in a squat and their criminal activity eventually culminated in the murder of two men. James was released in 2004 after serving 20 years behind bars. During the final years of his sentence, he was asked to write a column in the Guardian newspaper on prison life and still writes for the paper today. Listening to James speak to us so calmly and movingly, you have to wonder how such a transition was achieved – from a “rock-bottom” life in prison to becoming a successful writer with two published books (A Life Inside and The Home Stretch).

“My whole life is an apology really. I live an apology”

James, who has a notably humble way about him, gives no pretence that he is an “exceptional” individual, but instead pays tribute to a handful of much needed “champions”. One such champion came in the figure of the prison psychologist, Joan. During a bleak moment of James’ life, it was Joan who convinced him that he had worth. “She said to me ‘none of us are thick, we are all born with potential.’ She really hammered that down my throat. She persuaded me that I had some value,” he tells us with evident emotion. Gradually, James became reacquainted with education – something he speaks passionately about. “Education is the last bastion for rehabilitation. If we believe in rehabilitation for prisoners, we’ve got to start with education.”

James unearthed his childhood penchant for writing and enrolled in an English course in prison before going on to complete an Arts degree, majoring in history. “In a few months I was top of the class,” he beams with pride, before wryly adding, “but it’s not hard to be top of the class in prison, in any subject really.” Although James claims to be unexceptional, to succeed in the “prison soup” is difficult. “Prison was all about crushing, dehabilitating, disempowering, dehumanising, all the negative things about being a human being, prison was that” he reflects. “You have to operate within a very negative hierarchy…it’s dangerous. If you say ‘Oh I’m going to read books’, you’ll get stabbed – I’m not joking. If you’re going to further yourself in prison, you have to do it in a way that is acceptable to the hierarchy […] but I decided to overcome these negatives.”

Unsurprisingly, these problems stirred when James — known on the landings for “writing a good letter” — began writing for the Guardian. “It was dangerous in one respect because of ‘the tall poppy’ syndrome – you’ve got to be subtle about your achievement,” he explains. “Suddenly the Guardian wanted me to write for them, and my heart was bursting, wanting to tell the whole world that a national newspaper wants me to write from them.” But James was discreet and after much campaigning he eventually began writing under the pen name Erwin James. “I thought, this was something worth doing. I could have just not bothered; I could have just crawled into a hole and disappeared,” he insists. “The prison didn’t want me to write for the Guardian, they told me it wasn’t going to happen – they don’t like prisoners in the media.” James recalls an incident when he was accused of criticising the home secretary in his column and was called in front of the prison governor. “He said to me, ‘I’ve been told to tell you, (I was due my parole hearing at 18 years) any more of that and when it comes to your parole hearing, we might just turn the page and let you wait a couple more years.’” We look at James wide-eyed, open-mouthed. “I swear to God that’s what he said. I said to him, ‘If you want to keep me in prison for a bad thing, you keep me in as long as you want. But you keep me in prison for a good thing… I mean, are you threatening me? I’ve never written the disparaging things I’ve could have written, I’ve just been authentic and truthful and I’m going to carry on doing that in my writing.’”

So you faced issues of censorship?

“I was self-censored”, he states definitively, describing how he avoided the governor’s bowdlerizing hand. “I used to write my copy and read it over the phone [to the Guardian], with a big long queue behind me. So I’d be whispering, because I might be talking about drugs, or an escape, or prison politics and they might think I’m a snitch. It was dangerous. I had one guy come to my cell one night and ask, “Do you work at the Times?” I said “Yes I do”. I didn’t, but I thought, that’d put them off the scent!” he laughs.

It’s these kinds of anecdotes that remind us of the significance of James’ writing as a prisoner; a convict locked away in an unknown and marginalised place. Some criticised the Guardian for giving a criminal such an outward platform, yet James wanted nothing more than to “open a little window into what it was actually like”. “I had no issue about being a prisoner – I knew I deserved all that came to me. I wasn’t innocent, I wasn’t protesting,” he explains. “But when I read that I was in a holiday camp, eating steak and lobster, I thought that’s not fair. I’ve got victims out there, family, friends, who think that people like me are inside having a great time playing pool with my mates. It’s just not true.”

James’ honesty provided a much needed human antidote to these distorted images and allowed James to be not just a convict, but a writer. On the landings he was ‘Big Jim’, and in print he was Erwin James: a name he chose as “a sort of mechanism – not revealing too much, but not hiding either.” James’ work received largely positive feedback, but the speculation of ‘Who Did Erwin James Kill?’ reached boiling point in 2009 in a Daily Mail exposé after James tweaked information in an article he wrote about his time spent in the Foreign Legion in order to conceal his identity – a decision he remains apologetic about. While hardly an exemplary moment of James’ character, his evident frustration and embarrassment underlines for us what is most striking and admirable about him – his overwhelming spirit of self-improvement: “My whole life is an apology really. I live an apology,” he finally tells. “I knew I owed it to my victims to live the best way I could. If I’d come out of prison and just gone off quietly and become a plumber, I could have put this whole thing behind me. But because I chose this path, there is always a cloud over my head – I think about my victims every day.”

Ally Swadling & Mary O’ Connor

Originally published by Nouse in June 2012.