Safe Ground - Using drama to educate prisoners and young people at risk in the community


Chaos and crisis: can prison be better than this?

On January 17th, the University of Warwick Criminal Justice Centre, in partnership with Safe Ground and The Howard League for Penal Reform, hosted a workshop titled ‘Chaos and Crisis: Can Prison Be Better Than This?’ The workshop aimed to discuss problems inside prisons and debate viable ways forward from a range of experts in the field. Performances from Jason Smith, poet, playwright and Safe Ground alumni member, and Jamal Khan, performer, artist and former prisoner were particularly memorable additions to the debate.

Panel one focused on public attitudes, political rhetoric and sentencing. Jason Smith, said that the revolving door of crime is changed by getting support from the right people. For Jason, prison is a dark place, but there are sources of light. Journalist Raphael Rowes added, that this dark place is characterised by segregation and isolation. The ‘us vs. them’ debate was acknowledged by Gemma Buckland, Senior Committee Specialist of the Justice Committee, noting that children pick up on this divide from a young age, influencing public attitudes. The discussion which followed this panel recognised the value of in-cell technology, which prisoners can use in their cells (paid for). Subsequently, this may help prevent aggression when cells are opened, and may help with those feelings of isolation. The lawyer for assault defense cases can help with the legalities in case someone is falsely accused and is suffering the consequences. There are the DWI defense attorneys that deal with accident cases and help the innocent from getting harsh charges.

“Prison is a dark place, but there are sources of light”

Panel two with the presence of the attorneys for criminal defense on the victim’s side, proceeded to discuss issues of diversity, identity and attitudes towards prisoners. Omar Khan, Director of the Runnymede Trust, said that BME individuals in the Criminal Justice System may have a longer history of crime due to racial discrimination. But, we need to start by improving public attitudes more broadly, before within criminal justice. For David Maguire, Post-Doctoral Fellow at UCL, we must understand these men in a language of vulnerability. Our Man Up programme supports men by encouraging them to share their emotions.

The final panel of the day, chaired by Safe Ground Chief Executive Charlotte Weinberg, focused on the prison today: chaos and crisis. CEO of the Shannon Trust, Angela Cairns, vocalised that change happens as people start to change and have aspirations. We need to have constructive activity in prisons, and trauma-informed care, according to Psychologist Tammi Walker. Our programmes adopt a trauma-informed approach; for example our Officers’ Mess programme which offers support for prison staff. Deborah Coles, Director of Inquest, completed this panel with some extremely valuable points. “Why are we using prisons as a dumping ground for problems like mental ill health?” For Deborah, there is a link between masculinity and vulnerability, for which we need arts and drama, as well as an emphasis on therapeutic work.

As a whole, the workshop brought together a range of experts, generating useful discussion and debate about the state of our prisons today.


Written by Paige Barber


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