Prisoners of conscience

6 March 2019 | North West England

Rebecca Friel - Odd Arts

How Becky’s acting workshops are turning around the behaviour of inmates.

When it comes to prisoners, it is hard to imagine how theatre will make a difference to their lives as well as the wider community. But that is exactly what is happening thanks to the unique works of social initiative Odd Arts.

It works to help reach some of the most vulnerable and excluded groups in the society including inmates from Lancaster Farms Prison and Forest Bank Prison in Salford.

It aims to reduce the risk of re-offending, build safer communities and improved mental wellbeing. Meanwhile the charity also increases access and engagement to the arts and culture for disadvantaged groups while theatre workshops in schools help combat radicalism.

But it is their latest programme, Relationships and Resilience that works with prisoners. Those with a history of domestic abuse are put forward but anyone who might benefit from learning how to deal with conflict without violence, build healthy relationships and change their behavior are encouraged to join the programme.

Becky Friel founded the project 14 years ago. As a drama student at Manchester University, she saw first hand how theatre could transform the lives of prisoners and help the wider community at large.

As part of her degree she had spent time working with inmates delivering ‘applied theatre’ which uses drama in an educational, community or therapeutic context.

“I was totally blown away by the impact we had,” Becky, now 35, explains. “It sounds like a cliche, but it really changed my life. I knew then that was the direction I wanted to go, inspired by a keen awareness of social justice as well as a passion for theatre and drama.”

Becky believes the Resilience project at least has never been more timely with aggression in prisons at a record high. “Violence is rocketing in prisons, and there has been a huge rise in youth violence. I personally think that this kind of intervention can’t come at a better time.”

The course is divided into three weeks, with the first covering non violent communication. The second week focuses on healthy relationships and in the final week they tackle mental health, wellbeing and dealing with emotions."

“They come on the course expecting to learn through workbook. When they realise they will be acting things out it can really throw them,” says Becky. “But it is amazing how quickly they get into it. Ultimately, we want them to understand what a healthy relationship is. We want them to see what impact their behaviour can have on a partner, family and wider community. They are taught to identify triggers for their emotions and what tools they can use to regulate those emotions.

As part of the course, prisoners will watch a performance by actors playing a couple in an abusive relationship. The actors explore at all types of abuse, from violence, to financial to coercive control. Half way through the prisoners are asked to identify unacceptable behaviour.

“After the sketch has ended they then go back and rework what has happened but this time with more positive behaviours. It is actually practising how they should act in real life.”

The ‘grand finale’ of the programme is a play that the prisoners write and then perform in front of other prisoners and staff. Sometimes, when appropriate, their families are even invited. The play will be based on real life situations, and the prisoners decide whether to take on the role of the aggressor or the victim. It can be tough to witness but ultimately, it is also uplifting.

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