Clean Break – Theatre and the Criminal Justice System

Cesca Echlin talks to Clean Break, the theatre charity offering female offenders a means of expression

Photo: Katherine Leedale

It was in the summer after GCSEs that I first encountered the work of the theatre charity, Clean Break. The production, entitled ‘Little on the Inside,’ followed the relationship between two female prisoners as they attempted to cope with life behind bars. This seemingly ‘simple’ premise challenged the actors with the not-so-simple task of embodying the complex consciousness of two imprisoned women. The result was a bold piece of theatre that broke down the politically loaded problem of our prison system by centralizing the stories of individuals.

Clean Break itself was set up in 1979 by two female prisoners who sought to provide a theatrical platform for the consistently marginalized women that exist within the UK’s Criminal Justice System (CJS). Offering theatre-based programmes both within prisons and at their all-female premises in north London, Clean Break works to provide society with a more nuanced representation of women who are involved in the CJS.

Representation is a consistently discussed issue across our society nowadays, and rightly so. By representing women involved in the CJS, Clean Break provides a means through which society can be confronted with harsh realities that we too often choose to overlook. Speaking to Clean Break, I suggested that, as a women’s charity, it is inherently entrenched in the feminist movement. They agreed, and confirmed that addressing inequality is an important part of their work. It would be difficult to exclude the topic of feminism from the discussion of a charity that makes it clear that they ‘keep women to the fore in everything [they] do.’

‘Intersectionality’ is a relevant (dare I say it) ‘buzzword’ when you consider the work of Clean Break. Intersectionality can be defined as ‘the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage’ (OED). Clean Break’s specific client group allows us to grapple with a specific form of intersectionality: how female oppression intersects with the disadvantages that arise from involvement with the CJS.

To me, this overarching focus on women is what makes Clean Break unique. There are other notable charities that use theatre in conjunction with those who have been involved in the CJS – but none of these charities were conceived with the same female-centric ethos as Clean Break.

In the UK’s Criminal Justice System, the nature of female offending is very different from that of male offending. Whilst women make up only 5% of the UK prison population, they have particular and complex needs. Nearly 65% of women in prison reported that they had mental health issues compared with around 42% of men. In addition, 53% of women in prison report having experienced some form of abuse during their lifetime. A fundamental aspect of female imprisonment is the catastrophic effect it has on the prisoners’ children. Only 9% of children whose mothers are imprisoned are cared for by their fathers during their mother’s absence. The statistics are overwhelming, but do not in themselves suggest the subsequent cross-generational cycle of abuse, trauma, crime, incarceration, and subsequent reoffending.

Clean Break’s focus on women in the CJS allows them to keep the specific needs of their client group paramount. Their spokesperson remarked: ‘We have to bear in mind the personal experiences of the women… Violence, addiction, abuse are all subjects that might be painfully close to home for some of them. But if we’re working with a group of artists to teach them about working with vulnerable women, those same subjects might be vital to understanding what they need to do.’

There is an important point I should clarify – Clean Break’s theatre-based work is not ‘drama therapy.’ Their practitioners are carefully trained to manage group dynamics appropriately, and individuals are certainly not compelled to use their own experiences as a creative springboard. This is vital in sustaining an artistic environment that feels safe for everyone involved. All this being said, the idea of totally avoiding subjects like addiction and abuse carries with it an uncomfortable sense of falsehood. Acknowledging the realities of many of the women they are working with is crucial to Clean Break’s work – albeit it in a safe way for everyone involved in the creative process. Mental health is certainly not overlooked at the charity. They provide strong, in-house student support and offer specialist forensic psychotherapy from Holloway United Therapies (HUT).

With prison reform at a critical point in our society, a greater awareness of the impact of factors like abuse and addiction on criminal behaviour, and an overall deeper understanding of the devastating effects of female imprisonment on subsequent generations, it seems to me that the role of Clean Break has never felt more relevant. So, where can you see their work? ‘Thick as Thieves’ by Katherine Chandler is on tour later this year – see their website for more details.

Clean Break:

cleanbreak.org.uk

Holloway United Therapies (HUT):

hollowayunitedtherapies.org.uk

(Sources: womeninprison.org.uk; prisonreformtrust.org.uk)