Pentonville Prison is “crumbling and rife with vermin”. HMP Birmingham is in a “state of crisis”. Prison staff protest over “unprecedented violence” in jails. “Biggest UK prison riot in decades could and should have been prevented,” report finds.
We have been reading one such headline after another for months now, actually years, probably decades. Almost everything about our prison system is failing and contributing to this dire state: chronic overcrowding, understaffing, lack of purposeful activity, easily available drugs, squalor, rises in violence, self-harm, suicide… they are all interlinking, poisonous contributors to what is becoming a system wholly unfit for purpose. Yet still nothing substantial is done.
“What is the most important thing we can do?” That is the question I am so often asked at the end of my ‘arts in prison’ talk. Yet I have never been able to give an answer that feels satisfactory.
Through pictures, stories, statistics and facts, my audiences get a glimpse into our prison system, into the minds and lives of offenders, and into what role the arts can play in the process of rehabilitation. “I had no idea!” is the most common response, and then, with their new insight, people across the country, from sixth formers to retirees, want to know what they personally can do to help solve the increasingly dire situation that is our criminal justice system (CJS).
Two shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival left me feeling… well, strange. One was about a male ex-prisoner, the other about a female victim of rape. Light, cheery subject matters for me as always, but actually, intense and personal story telling abounded.
The first play was Doubting Thomas, created by multi-award winning director Jeremy Weller. The listings said: Thomas McCrudden, a man with a tortured and violent past but with hope for a different future, tells his own complex and moving story about abandonment and the stress of being forced to take on multiple roles, in Thomas’s own words, “…none of which were me! When I was growing up, I wasn’t able to accept love, and that created not just a man without a conscience or empathy. It created a monster.”
A ten-year-old boy haunted by the face of his mother as she was stabbed multiple times in front of his eyes; a seven-year-old boy sexually abused by a family friend, then repeatedly while in care; an eight-year-old boy in charge of his younger siblings, regularly punched in the face by his terrifying mother… I could go on. These are some of the people I have just met in HMP Parc while participating in The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE programme. And it beggars the question: is it right to be punishing people who themselves were originally the victims of primary life experiences that were so overwhelming, traumatic and desperately sad?
Finally, finally, the news is exposing what an appalling mess our prison service is in. For the first time ever the Queen, a Tory Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, the BBC, both prisoners and staff alike are all singing the same tune the pesky Inspectors of Prisons and irritating campaigners – once dismissed as idealistic, bleeding heart liberals and ‘soft’ on crime – have been singing for decades. There’s no going back now and I am in my element!
Having disclosed earlier this year, albeit unwittingly, that I listen to The Archer’s, I might as well go further and write about the incident back in April that was so dramatic it hit the headlines. For months listeners had has been pursuing a story line about domestic abuse, which then escalated into a stabbing and prison – topics far closer, I have to say, to my areas of interest than crop rotation.
The details are unimportant here except to say that the woman being abused, Helen, did the stabbing, transforming her in an instant from victim to perpetrator and the abuser, Rob, from perpetrator to victim. Of course stabbing someone is, in the eyes of the Law, a clean-cut case of wrongdoing, a serious and punishable crime. But the law can be clunky, a heavy-handed waiter in mittens trying to extract dirty glasses from a dinner table.