Portrait photo of Rachel Conlon

Rachel Conlon

Rachel Conlon is a Senior Drama Lecturer at York St John University, developed The Prison Partnership Project in 2013 jointly between the University’s theatre department, HMP Askham Grange and HMP New Hall to provide a unique, creative partnership between the arts, education and the prison service.

The Partnership gives women prisoners an opportunity to develop creative and life skills in line with their resettlement plans as they approach release. For University students, it delivers real-world experience of the impact of theatre within a criminal justice setting.

Who have you helped?

“Co-designed with prison staff, the project offers choices of creative arts to women prisoners and aims to develop a positive impact on the culture of the two prisons through social learning & group work approaches.

Its purpose is to enable collaborative arts outside of mainstream traditional theatre or educational learning space and to examine life beyond university and the prison walls in respect of crime, freedom, education, culture, family & community.

It delivers high quality, weekly drama sessions to women prisoners, alongside university theatre students, complimenting other resettlement activities within the prison to reduce re-offending.   It also presents opportunities to evidence the impact and value of the arts in the criminal justice system.

The project doesn’t just benefit individual prisoners. It has a much broader impact on the whole prison community. Since being released from prison, former inmates have reported how they’ve gone on to use the drama skills gained through the project to give a voice to other young vulnerable women. It also helps student actors engage in theatre in a meaningful way.

The work provides a programme of arts activity that develops participant’s self-worth, inter personal thinking and skills, empathy awareness, group problem solving and rehearsal for life role-playing. Participants come together through arts engagement to explore perspectives & perceptions of women in the criminal justice system, beyond media myths and society stigma.

For the University community, Prison Partnership Project encourages a stimulating educational discourse within undergraduate & postgraduate degrees surrounding the arts & social justice.  This work is closely aligned with the University’s social justice ethos and celebrates the theatre department’s long-standing commitment to socially engaged arts practice.”

What’s worked?

“Rachel’s project has seen significant success including the development of a short film, commissioned by Barnardos, to shed light on the experiences of female prisoners who are mothers.

In 2016, The Donmar Warehouse joined the Prison Partnership Project to offer prisoners the opportunity to engage with the artistic team producing an all-women Shakespeare trilogy, set in a jail. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, whose film credits include The Iron Lady and Mamma Mia, the productions received critical acclaim and was awarded the Longford Prize for its work with women prisoners.

Three of the plays; Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest, were shown to audiences in theatres in London and New York, as well as women and girls in schools and prisons. The film versions were shot in The Donmar Warehouse’s specially built temporary theatre in King’s Cross, and can now be seen on BBC iplayer here.”

What have you learned? Any challenges?

“The lessons learned are many and varied because the Partnership brings together two different kinds of communities – university students & staff and female prisoners. Both have learnt how to enable each other to encounter profound social barriers; two communities who in other circumstances wouldn’t normally meet.

It’s common to read claims about the benefits of lifelong learning and community outreach projects but to sit and listen to someone’s personal experiences delivered with conviction is truly powerful and challenging.

We have learnt that empathetic and positive student \ prisoner relationships counter balance any negative feelings surrounding any previous unhealthy relationships the prisoner may have had.

This empathetic approach also creates an environment that fosters positive reinforcement and growth, trust-buildingand fun in order to overcome resistance and fear of participation.”

What’s next?

“The Prison Partnership Project is continuing its work in disseminating the films and digital resource in women’s prisons over the coming year. Here they will explore the themes in the plays via drama and creative arts workshops.

The partnership project will continue to support emerging student practitioners and artists in skills development within this area of practice and urgently encourage a crucial shift in policy & general public thinking, in realising the benefit and value of the arts for social change, gender responsive ways of working and the importance of a University’s role in shaping quality arts within the criminal justice system.”

What advice, contacts or resources would help?

“Access to relevant networks specialising in prison arts, case studies and publications around national and international developments. Information on events (seminars, webinars and conferences) for leading activists and influencers in this area.”

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An individual or organisation from each of our five categories will be recognised at our Igniting Inspiration recognition event in November, but we want to publish all relevant stories to spread awareness of all the positive work that goes on in the North!

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