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: 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.

York PEN’s Official Launch: Prison Fictions and Writing Imprisonment, 21st June.

3pm The Bowland Auditorium, Berrick Saul Building, 21st June 2012

5.30pm Ticketed Event Bowland Lecture Theatre. Anyone with tickets will be entered into a draw to win a signed copy of a book by each author.

Tickets available at:

Organised by the Prison Fictions & Human Rights Project

Funded by The University of York’s Research Led Project and Rapid Response Fund


3pm WELCOME by Dr Michelle Kelly & Dr Claire Westall

Chairs: Claire Westall & Michelle Kelly
* Film Screening of the ‘Inspiring Change Prison Project’
* Kate Hendry, Motherwell College and HMP Shotts, explains the ‘Inspiring Change Project’
* Lynda Radley, playwright, explains her experience of working with female prisoners in HMP Greenock, Scotland, as part of the Inspiring Change Project to create a theatrical production entitled ‘A Woman’s Place’.

* York PEN, the new student group will announce themselves – in style!
* Robert Sharp, Head of Campaigns and Communications, English PEN



Chair: Dr Claire Westall
* Professor David Wilson, Birmingham City University, will be speaking about his experiences as a prison governor and his academic work on how prison is represented in popular culture and the media.
* Erwin James, writers and guardian columnist, will be speaking about his writing on imprisonment and the tensions between autobiography and the need to fictionalise.

6.30pm BREAK

Introduction by Michelle Kelly and Robert Sharp, English PEN
GILLIAN SLOVO, President of English PEN, will speak about two divergent but overlapping texts about imprisonment – 117 Days, her mother’s account of detention without trial in South Africa, and a new Guantanamo memoir she is currently writing.



Kate Hendry, of Motherwell College, teaches Creative Writing at HMP Shotts. She has also worked in Greenock and Barlinnie prisons where she has edited and published prisoners’ writing and art work. She has compiled, in collaboration with prisoners, an anthology of contemporary Scottish poetry for prison reading groups, The Poem Goes to Prison (Edinburgh: Scottish Poetry Library, 2010). Her paper evaluating the impact of prison reading groups on prisoners’ literacy practices was published last year in the RaPAL Journal (vol 75 autumn/winter). This year she is setting up, with Lottery funding, a new national arts magazine for prisons to showcase prisoners’ creative work. Her own poetry and fiction has been published widely and can be found in Harpers, New Writing Scotland, the Bridport Prize anthology 2009, Mslexia, The Rialto and Kin: Scottish Poems about Family (Edinburgh: Polygon 2009).

Lynda Radley is an award-winning playwright. She is originally from Cork but lives and works in Scotland. Lynda has worked for companies such as the Traverse Theatre, Dundee Rep and the National Theatre of Scotland. Her work has been seen on stages from Glasgow to Cork, and from Amsterdam to Australia. In 2010, Lynda worked with female prisoners at HMP Greenock as part of the Inspiring Change Project. This project was overseen by The Citizens’ Theatre in conjunction with Motherwell College and Creative Scotland. Lynda’s play The Art of Swimming was shortlisted for the Meyer-Whitworth award and for a Total Theatre Award. Lynda has been nominated for a PPI Irish radio award and twice for an Irish Times Theatre award for new writing. Most recently, she won a Scotsman Fringe First for her play Futureproof. Her plays are published by Nick Hern. Berlin Love Tour – a walking tour of Berlin that can take place in any city – was recently seen at Birmingham Rep and will soon be performed at Cork Midsummer Festival. It is produced by Playgroup.

David Wilson is Professor of Criminology and the Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. Prior to taking up an academic appointment in 1997, David was a Prison Governor and at 29 became the youngest governing governor in England. He worked at Grendon, Wormwood Scrubs and at Woodhill in Milton Keynes – where he designed and ran the two units for the 12 most violent prisoners in the country, which brought him into contact with virtually every recent serial killer. David regularly appears in the print and broadcast media as a commentator and presenter.

Erwin James Monahan embarked on a programme of part-time education in prison and gained an Open University arts degree. He developed an interest in writing and his first article for a national newspaper, The Independent, appeared in 1994. In 1995 he won first prize in the annual Koestler Awards for prose. His first article in The Guardian newspaper appeared in 1998 and he began writing a regular column for the paper entitled A Life Inside in 2000. The columns were the first of their kind in the history of British journalism and to this day James remains a Guardian columnist and contributor. A collection of his columns, A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook, was published in 2003. A follow up, The Home Stretch: From Prison to Parole, was published in 2005. A year after his release from prison in 2004 James became a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and in September 2009 he became a trustee of the Alternatives to Violence Project Britain. He is a patron of the charity CREATE, an organisation that promotes the arts and creative activities among marginalized groups. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (FRSA) and an Honorary Master of the Open University.

Gillian Slovo is the South African born author of twelve novels and her best selling family memoir Every Secret Thing. Her novel Red Dust won the RFI Temoin du Monde prize in France, and was made into a feature film starring Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ice Road was short listed for Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize. She is a recipient of an Amnesty Media Award and co-compiler of the Tricycle Theatre production Guantanamo-Honour Bound to Defend Freedom which she assembled, from spoken evidence, for the Tricycle’s ‘Women, Power and Politics’ season. Her play The Riots was put on in 2011 in the Tricycle and Tottenham’s Bernie Grant Arts Centre. Gillian was elected the 25th President of English PEN in 2010, and her twelfth novel, An Honourable Man, was published in January 2012.

Books for sale at the event:
Radley’s Futureproof; Erwin James’ A Life Inside and The Home Stretch; David Wilson’s Serial Killers: Hunting Britons and their Victims; and Gillian Slovo’s Every secret thing, Red Dust, Guantanamo, The Riots and An Honourable Man.

Poster: Photography by Francesca Pollard, Design by the Prison Fictions and Human Rights Marketing Group.