Anna talks about the transformative power of creativity, the damaging impact of the criminal justice system on women and the passion and commitment of those still fighting for change.
I started my journey in justice-based theatre working with young people who were experiencing homelessness and subsequently young people in schools and youth centres challenging racism. I facilitated theatre training projects and devised productions to build skills and confidence, and to bring awareness to audiences about young people’s experiences. I have always had a strong belief in the need for, and value of, women-only spaces, so when the opportunity came up twenty years ago to work with Clean Break, it was a perfect combination of my passion and interests.
At first, I became Head of Education for our theatre education programme for women with experience of the criminal justice system or who are at risk of entering it. This involved leading the growth and expansion of this programme, which at its peak, offered over thirty courses every year, providing qualifications and support in a safe, women only space, from our north London studios. A key achievement was developing strong partnerships with universities where women were offered bursaries and places on undergraduate courses following their time at Clean Break, relationships which continue in the present day, providing a much-needed pathway to new skills. The role also involved bringing Clean Break plays into prisons, enabling women to engage with our work and running theatre-based workshops.
In 2018 I moved into the role of Joint Artistic Director and Joint Chief Executive as we moved into a new phase, with a commitment to ensure women with lived experience are at the heart of the company and at the centre of the theatre we create, shifting the power of who makes and tells our stories.
Over the last twenty years, I have seen how damaging an environment the prison system is for women, and how impossible it is to create a rehabilitative culture within it. I can’t see where else we have such a deeply discriminatory system at the heart of our society, which we continue to invest heavily in. I think prison shows a failure in our imagination. There is something truly incongruous about holding people in such a punitive space, while wanting people to learn, grow and make change for themselves and their families.
I’ve also seen how much the criminal justice system is an expression of patriarchy, which discriminates against women, as it’s a system designed by men for men. There are 12 women’s prisons in England (and none in Wales), with women being held on average 60 miles from home, which impacts adversely on visits from family and severs ties to community. This adds to the already devastating impact prison has on women’s mental health, with over 7 in 10 women in prison experiencing mental ill health and record numbers of incidents of self-harm reported recently.
More positively though, there is a huge amount of passion, commitment and determination in those who fight for prison reform or abolition. I have met amazing people, particularly women who campaign in this field, and that includes here at Clean Break; colleagues, artists, Trustees and Members. There is hope in these amazing people and organisations who don’t take the pressure off, and this energises me.
And theatre continues to be the transformative pillar of the work I do. Making theatre offers imaginative escape, healing and community. It helps to process difficult emotions, feel a sense of pride, feel seen, valued and recognised.
Through working with Clean Break, I have seen first-hand the impact writing and performing has on women with experience of the criminal justice system, or who are at risk of entering it. Writing allows people to tell not just their own story, but to create a world which they have within them. The women we work with often talk about finding or honing their voice through our programmes.
For women who are marginalised and have experience of stigma and negative labels, participating in a creative process can be very freeing: it’s your imagination and its valid. At Clean Break women can be free to express themselves, without labels or explanations. We all contribute to making it a respectful space to embrace a new identity as an artist, writer or performer. Our plays aren’t usually rooted in autobiography, although we are beginning this work now, ensuring we hold women's wellbeing safely within the process. Even without it being their own story, performing demands a huge amount of courage and of self-belief, to stand in front of an audience. Performing builds confidence, skills and improves health and wellbeing. If prisons took their responsibilities of rehabilitation seriously, they would invest in and nurture creativity within the walls and beyond prisons, through the gates. Creativity, arts and culture are a way for people to reconnect with their communities and contribute to society in different ways. It also allows people to not just be seen through the lens of the criminal justice system. Over the decades I’ve seen hundreds of women who haven't believed in their potential, because of damaging layers of oppression. But through creativity, with time and support from Clean Break staff and peers, they start to see themselves differently. It’s an incredible journey to witness women going on, and very humbling. A big part of our approach at Clean Break is rooted in the knowledge that people’s journeys are not straight forward. Change happens step by step, and there are so many ongoing challenges – trauma, recovery, poverty, discrimination. There's a complexity of women’s lives that we respond to, the door remains open.
The life skills women gain through our programmes support women moving on to careers not just in the arts, but in a range of other fields, for example, substance misuse services, activating their lived experience. Many people have taken that journey though Clean Break. The role of those with lived experience in changing systems for the better is now strongly recognised, a shift of discourse from the margins to the centre, which has taken place – which I hope will lead us to meaningful change.
Since I began working with Clean Break 20 years ago, some of the battles are the same. Access to prisons remain a challenge for us, which keeps arts and culture unavailable to people inside. Some prison Governors champion arts, but it is very dependent on personnel – and not considered an essential part of provision. The current funding model, the ‘Dynamic Purchasing Framework’, does not feel very dynamic or appropriate for small arts organisations – it is a deeply transactional process which has removed the ethos of working in partnership with prisons. Artists are often expected to carry keys and take on the role of prison officer (this is something we won’t do at Clean Break). Having said that, at a policy level there is an increased recognition of the value of arts in criminal justice settings, and other places where people are denied access to the arts. Recently we have seen much more buy in from some Government bodies, and the Arts Council which supports the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance through multi-year funding.
The biggest upheaval for our work in prisons though has been as a result of the pandemic, which overnight removed access to prisons and those inside them for arts organisations. We have risen to the challenge of finding new ways to connect with people in prison, but the regularity of arts organisations having access to prisons has been broken, so we need to rebuild this.
There is positive change, however, with the women’s centre model offering a viable alternative to prisons. With women’s centres, women remain in the community and are provided with trauma informed support, by women for women. The centres understand women’s complex needs, and work without judgement to support them. This didn’t exist on a national scale before the Corston Report. We are now galvanising the public and urging the Government to provide sustainable support for women’s centres, so we are not reliant on prisons and find different ways of transforming lives.
20 years feels like a long time to have stayed in one place, but the day-to-day rewards and challenges are immense – and the drive for change, justice and equality only strengthens. It has been a huge privilege to be part of an inspiring community of women, and to contribute to change. It has given my life a meaning and purpose which I never imagined but which I am hugely grateful for.