The Bard behind bars: Theatre as therapy

Published

Peter Merts

Blair Cunningham
Theatre Editor

Fights between prisoners are a common occurrence: drugs, gangs, and the fact that hundreds of humans with a tendency for violence are crammed into small spaces together, are unsurprising factors. But in some prisons, noses and arms are instead being broken over who will get to wear Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat.

Therapy has three main aims in UK prisons: to deal with the multitude of emotional, personality and substance-abuse issues that put most inmates behind bars in the first place; to give inmates a better chance of success after release with proper skills and coping mechanisms; and finally, to give them something to do in prison rather than stare at the Murano-esque walls, not quite to entertain, but at least to engage. We’ve all seen AA, NA and anger management sessions in the plethora of prison-based TV or film productions, but a more unorthodox therapy, which has actually existed for many decades, is drama therapy.

Conservatives immediately scoff at the idea of some outrageous, Norwegian-inspired expenditure to give inmates a taste of the “high-life”. It’s more than just entertainment for inmates who suffer from emotional problems. It’s usually the first time they’ve been offered any kind of real self-expression in their life.

I came to know about this form of therapy in prison through a drama teacher I had several years ago who herself taught drama in Scottish prisons. Some might call her extremely brave for teaching drama to maximum-security male convicts in Scotland’s toughest prisons, mostly HMP Shotts. Of course, there was an element of this (most of us wouldn’t take the same challenge she did), but her actual encounters with inmates gave a very humanising depiction of the prisoners, separate from their terrifying reputations.

The rooms full of male inmates with histories of violence, ranging from assault to multiple murders, were not the simmering, anarchistic riots we would expect, she told us. In fact, every man in there was desperate for a chance to escape his emotional repression through drama. Their life experiences overwhelmingly conformed to three factors: they were male, working-class, and involved in serious crime. These factors each enforce their own layer of emotional repression as a defence mechanism. Every day of their lives, inside and out of prison, is spent appearing and acting as tough and ruthless as they possibly can. Every day they avoid appearing weak or vulnerable is a day spent repressing their emotions, not expressing themselves in any way. Theatre therapy is obviously also useful to female inmates, but emotional repression in male prisoners leads to a tendency for greater violence and, with men making up over 90% of the UK’s prison population, this makes it especially crucial for male inmates.

My teacher told us that she has never had a more eager, patient class than those men; and as long as there’s plenty of enthusiasm, knowledge and experience of theatre, the sky’s the limit. Whenever an inmate disturbed the class or threatened her while she was teaching, it wasn’t the guards who would deal with him, but the other inmates; they would sternly and unequivocally teach him a lesson. This was partly due to the old-fashioned belief of many male prisoners in protecting women (she admitted that if a man had taught the class he might have had more trouble from the threatening inmates), but it was mostly an indicator of how much they valued the relief the class gave them.

So if this article has any message, it is two-fold: the first being that prisoners are still human in every sense, the arts are not reserved for the poncey middle classes reciting Othello – those with the hardest lives and the most violent convictions can still benefit from self-expression. The second is that these programmes are not superfluous, but essential. Every pound we spend letting these prisoners get their emotions out, engage healthily with other prisoners, and be entertained, is £10 we don’t have to spend when they destroy their cells or fight other inmates in a desperate attempt to get the same emotional relief. They’ve all done bad things, and many of them are bad people or at least have been bad people in the past – but what’s certain is that most of them will leave prison one day. The question is, do we want to give them the tools to succeed when that day comes, or count down the days till they wind up back behind bars? I know what my answer is.