Women in Prison: The Importance of Creativity as Rehabilitation

From our ‘Let’s Evolve’ print issue, Moya Marshall explores our reliance on creative pursuits during the lockdowns, and how this restorative power can empower incarcerated womxn.

This article originally appeared in ‘The Let’s Evolve’ issue of BRICKS, available to purchase from our online store.

WORDS Moya Marshall  

Trigger warning: this article includes references to suicide, systemic racism, transphobia, sexual assault and self-harm. 

“I don’t feel anyone helped me deal with my anger problems in jail. My writing did. Without even knowing it, I became my own therapist. That’s how I survived.” It’s Saturday morning and I’m on a mercifully glitch-free zoom call with Brenda Birungi, A.K.A the inimitable poet, storyteller and life after prison advocate, Lady Unchained.  

We’re talking about her time spent in prison and how she turned to writing to avoid her pain manifesting in other, self-destructive ways. Not recognising the words she had written as poetry, Brenda transferred her feelings onto paper in order to process the environment she was in. She has now launched a creative platform to help people who have been in her position to do the same. An award-winning performer and leader of writing workshops within female spaces across the country, her staunch belief that creativity may hold something healing for women embroiled in the system shines through with piercing clarity. 

Over the last few months, for those of us who were lucky enough to be well during lockdown, creativity served as a unanimous lifeline. I can’t count a friend who did not pick up a paintbrush, cautiously approach the tuneless strings of a guitar or dabble in embroidery. Those who didn’t utlised a different approach and took the chance to burrow into books, music, T.V. or films they had long-sworn to lend time to.  

We did so to keep our days busy; meaningful. To prevent inertia from digging its heels into our brains. In short, to protect our mental health. Countless studies of the correlation between our minds and creative practices have proven that they hold part of the answer to positive wellbeing.  

At the time of writing, 3,262 women are in prison in the UK. From this number: 7 in 10 will be survivors of domestic abuse, and an estimated 53 percent of them will have experienced sexual, physical and emotional abuse in childhood. 80 percent of women are sent to prison for non-violent offences, with sentences sometimes merely lasting weeks. Ludicrous as it is to have to spell it out, this environment carries abysmal consequences for mental health within women’s prisons.  

Ludicrous as it is to have to spell it out, this environment carries abysmal consequences for mental health within women’s prisons.  

Trans women in the prison system are also subjected to different, but equally harrowing experiences. A report published by the Ministry of Justice in 2019 indicated that less than a tenth of trans inmates were housed in prisons corresponding to their gender identity, and just under 80 percent of this number were trans women. The tragic suicides of trans inmates Jenny Swift and Vikki Thompson, both housed in male prisons while openly identifying as female, is testament to the brutal, unfair nature of the system. Sarah Jane Baker, the UK’s longest-standing trans female inmate and author of Transgender Behind Prison Walls (who again, was held in several male institutions) stated in an interview with Dazed in 2019 that she was at the receiving end of transphobic slurs daily and suffered multiple rapes and attempts to end her life during her 30-year sentence.  

This is not a denial of mental health problems within male prisons, which also suffer at the hands of an inadequate system. However, it is an acknowledgement that conversation surrounding the criminal justice system is gendered. Despite being just 5 percent of the UK’s prison population, women account for over 19 percent of self-harm incidents. Whilst some may perceive that numbering, only 5 percent, as a positive, this has meant female institutions have been designed as hasty afterthoughts. 

It would be remiss not to note that the British justice system as a whole is disproportionately disadvantageous to people of colour. Black people are 43 times more likely to get stopped and searched without suspicion than white people, and Black men are 240 percent more likely to be given a prison sentence for drug offences than white men. A 2017 report on the treatment of BAME women embroiled in the justice system summarised that Black, Asian and minority ethnic women accounted for 18 percent of the women’s prison population – despite making up on 11.9 percent of the female population in England and Wales. These statistics serve as a mere snapshot into racism within the justice system, but indicate that the punishment it intends to inflict is unfairly loaded on communities that already suffer under discrimination from society as a whole.  

At HMP Bronzefield, Europe’s second-largest female prison, it costs over £60,000 to hold a woman for a year. Despite this cost, allegations made by an ex-inmate suggest extremely low-quality rehabilitative services, and one year ago a baby girl died inside its walls, as her mother gave birth alone in her cell. Clearly, we must evolve from thinking that expensive is synonymous with better rehabilitation.  

Laughably, despite investment in creating more prison spaces, it has been proven repeatedly that crime rates do not decrease as the UK’s prison population increases. Reoffending costs us over £18 billion a year, with just under 40 percent of prison leavers reoffending within 12 months of release. Meanwhile, funding for long-term creative programmes in prisons is almost non-existent, although research has proved their efficacy. 

If you’ve come to Clean Break and you’ve felt somehow less than you should be, and you leave feeling you deserve a place in the world — that’s triumphant.

Róisín McBrinn, co-director of Clean Break

London-based theatre company Clean Break run drama and theatre programmes with women inside prison, post-release and those at risk of offending. Only 5 percent of women who complete a course with them have reoffended, and 70 percent of the women they work with go onto either education or employment. I spoke with the company’s co-director, Róisín McBrinn who was modest about these incredible numbers: ‘If you’ve come to Clean Break and you’ve felt somehow less than you should be, and you leave feeling you deserve a place in the world — that’s triumphant.’ 

Róisín’s words hit hard, partly because they indicated women regularly leave prison feeling, ‘less than themselves,’ but also emphasised that focusing on numbers alone is a narrow-minded barometer of success. A recent paper which strongly argued the economic benefits of using the arts in criminal justice settings also asserted that many projects are measured on ‘soft’ outcomes, like enjoyment or heightened self-esteem. In a system that is pedantic about punishment, it is no wonder securing funding is difficult. 

I spoke to Josie Bevan, who has experienced the justice system from the opposite side of the gate. After her husband Rob was given a nine-year sentence, she started Prison Bag, a blog and podcast, to ‘put a body between what was happening and me.’ So candidly phrased, it reminded me that to be creative is a luxury. It is remarkable, although really so obvious: through creativity, we nurture a skill within ourselves, and we can escape into that skill if need be. 

It reminded me that to be creative is a luxury. It is remarkable, although really so obvious: through creativity, we nurture a skill within ourselves, and we can escape into that skill if need be. 

Women in prison don’t often benefit from this. A 2013 project run by the Arts Alliance assessed the effects of creative writing and journal making with a group of female prisoners. It aimed to enable them to, ‘Explore issues and ask questions they aren’t able to vocalise.’ One participant remarked: ‘I’ve learned I’m an artistic person! I’ve discovered I can draw, and paint, and write.’ It was thrilling to read the words of someone who had just discovered a new way of communicating, but numbing that she hadn’t been afforded this opportunity either in prison or in her life beforehand.  

Creative programmes are of course, not the remedy for a broken system, but they can serve as a direction towards better rehabilitation. I hope that we are now ready for this conversation, after experiencing — albeit thoroughly more lenient — restrictions on our own movement.  We cannot know how it feels until we experience it, but we have come closer to feeling the slow moments of each day than ever before. Remembering the creativity we turned to to pass the time may encourage us to fight for it for other people.  

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