Prison therapeutic program makes use of the arts

By Forrest Lee Jones

For more than three decades, Clean Break, an organization based in London, England, has provided a therapeutic program for women prisoners within the United Kingdom that helps them share their stories of incarceration through the arts.

“Our training and education program helps participants to develop personal, social, professional and creative skills that often lead to education and employment,” reports the Clean Break website. 

Clean Break was started by two women prisoners in the United Kingdom in 1979. Its mission is to spread an awareness of women prisoners to a wider audience through playwrights and groundbreaking plays about women and crime.

The Clean Break website points out that “Most women offenders have experienced male violence and are victims of crime, yet [in the UK] first-time women offenders are twice as likely as men to be sent to prison.”

“Our vision is of a society where women are neither unjustly criminalized nor unnecessarily imprisoned,” states the organization. “We believe that theater enables women to challenge their oppression by society in general and by the criminal justice system in particular.”

One of Clean Break’s developments was its “Take Five Project,” a collaboration of work with women prisoners and arts practitioners comprising five prisons within the UK.

It was designed to encourage creative communication between women who continually experience relocations while in prison that limit real communication.

All the work completed in those prisons became a catalyst for creative work in other prisons.

The project started in the form of creative writing groups, in which women were able to express their experiences and feelings with themselves and others.

Their work was passed on to Cookham Wood Prison, where women created their own work using visual arts and large scale photomontage.

Work from both was sent to Holloway women’s’ prison, where the response was a drama praising the commonality and individuality of women’s experiences behind prison walls.

A video image of the drama was sent to another institution called Bullwood Hall. In Bullwood Hall women produced a soundtrack with computer software using the human voice.

The final destination for the project was in East Sutton Park prison. In East Sutton women were given permission to work in an editing studio to make a five-minute video to honor women working in other prisons.

Currently, Clean Break is running theater-based courses and training programs for ex-prisoners in its women-only building in Kentish Town. Clean Break has worked to spread its programs to all women’s prisons in the United Kingdom.

“While the product, the creative art, recognizes the damage done by disruption and separation, the process of women working together to create the art forms celebrates the potential for growth and change,” wrote Mary Eaton, author of Women After Prison, in an article about Clean Break entitled “Providing a Voice.”


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