Making a difference

Lucy Perman explains the work of theatre company Clean Break.

Clean Break uses theatre to change the lives of women offenders. We were founded 33 years ago by two women in prison at HMP Askham Grange in Yorkshire and today we have grown to become a critically acclaimed theatre company, commissioning and producing plays by some of the UK’s best female playwrights on the theme of women, crime and justice; and providing high-quality theatre-based courses, qualifications, training opportunities and specialist support which are critical for the rehabilitation of women offenders.


In the last three years we have consistently produced ground-breaking and award-winning plays. A particular success has been Dream Pill by Rebecca Prichard which tells the story of two young girls trafficked from Nigeria to the UK. The play has been performed at Soho Theatre (part of our Charged production of 6 short plays in 2010), the Scotland Yard Conference on Human Trafficking 2010, Underbelly Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2011 and is now on tour in Scotland; it will be at the Latitude Festival 2012. Another success was This Wide Night by Chloë Moss (Soho Theatre London 2008 & 2009, winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Award 2009) which has also now been produced in New York and tells the story of what happens to women – and the intense relationships they forge – once they leave prison.

The writers begin their commissions with prison residencies, working directly with women offenders, and it is here that their ideas for the plays are born, bringing the stories of women and crime centre stage. The plays are performed by professional actors and tour to mainstream venues in London and regionally, and to women’s prisons across the country. We work with the freshest, most progressive female playwrights to make work of a world-class standard: telling human stories truthfully and skillfully in ways which draw our audiences in, capture their hearts and minds, and make them leave wanting to change the world.

We also run highly successful writing residencies in prisons around the country, focusing purely on the women’s writing talent; a recent piece of work Five Women that was written by women in HMP Holloway supported by playwright Katie Himms won a Koestler Gold Award for Radio Play and was broadcast on the prison radio in Holloway.

In our purpose-built studios in Kentish Town, we run a year-round education programme for women offenders and those at risk of offending, working with around 100 women every year through theatre-based courses and holistic support services. In addition, we deliver an increasing amount of work in prisons across the country, reaching 500 women a year. We also provide performance opportunities for women offenders/those at risk, including a recent play Seventeen Minutes which was performed at Middle Temple alongside the Introductory Weekend for Out of London Students – this was a great opportunity to introduce future barristers to the issues and contexts in the lives of women involved in the criminal justice system.

Those working in the criminal courts understand very well the multiple vulnerabilities and needs of women offenders: 78% of women received into prison exhibit some level of psychological distress, compared to 15% of the adult female population; 37% have attempted suicide during their lives. 25% spent time in local authority care as children (compared to 2% of general population) and 50% ran away from home. 71% have no qualifications, 67% were unemployed before their sentences and 32% were homeless (compared to 0.2% general population).  Additionally, according to internal Clean Break research, 95% of the women we work with have been victims of sexual or domestic violence during their lives.

These statistics result in a high level of need which is not being adequately met through custodial sentences. Incredibly, only 11% of women who asked for housing advice received it during their sentences – despite 33% losing their home as a result of imprisonment. The time and funding available for education, training or useful work experience in prison is being increasingly squeezed, especially after the peak in prison numbers following the August riots. Also, because of the nature of the women’s prison estate, the average distance they are held from home is 55 miles, making it very difficult to maintain family relationships, something that has been proven to have a negative impact on re-offending rates.

The most damning statistic however, is that reoffending rate. Nationally, 51% of women released from prison are reconvicted within the year. For the majority of women serving sentences of less than six months this rises to 62% and for some prisons, it’s as high as 77%.

Clean Break addresses these issues and needs effectively, providing an alternative solution, tailored support and a programme of progressive courses which build confidence and self-esteem and provide the skills to help women break away from crime. Like Elissa*, many of the women we work with have served custodial sentences, often more than one, and find themselves stuck in cycles of offending behaviour fuelled by addiction, poverty or unaddressed mental health needs. Women like this require intensive support to take back control of their own lives and break ingrained cycles of offending.

The impact of our work is also demonstrated in a recent study by New Philanthropy Capital on the cost benefit analysis of our work. The study found that for every £1 invested in Clean Break, £4.57 is recouped in just twelve months solely through reduced reoffending and savings to the criminal justice system, not including the additional savings of women like Elissa who retain custody of children. The study also found that the reoffending rate among Clean Break students is 5%, a startling comparison to the figures for the general prison population which are ten times higher.

We are able to achieve these results through intensive work and support. We use theatre to help progression away from crime, providing the stepping stones needed, starting with personal development courses, progressing onto theatre skills training through specialist courses and work placement opportunities. Alongside this, students (women offenders and women at risk of offending) have access to holistic, individualised student support based on one to one meetings. Students like Elissa start off their Clean Break journey by meeting with our dedicated student support team to create an individual learning plan to guide their learning and identify specialist support needs. Students also receive financial support for travel and childcare and free lunches. It is these extra levels of support that enable women like Elissa to continue their learning, complete courses and start a positive cycle of achievement and personal progress.

By the nature of our work it is difficult for us to ‘cut costs’ but like other charities we face the challenge of an economic squeeze. We are also conscious of the even greater challenge to the women whom we help, at a time when benefits are going to be capped and other agencies face closure. To respond to this we are working more closely with advice and support agencies to ensure our students have the best possible support.

Lucy Perman MBE, Executive Director of Clean Break

Women like Elissa*

Elissa (not her real name) had a twenty year history of offending, drug and alcohol use and domestic violence when she met a Clean Break Outreach Worker in Kentish Town Police Station. She’d been arrested for assaulting a police officer and being drunk in charge of a minor. She was terrified of losing her child, having previously lost custody of an older child. Her husband was violent towards her and consistently threatened to take her young child away.

Our Outreach Worker attended court with Elissa where she received a three month sentence for her offences, of which she served six weeks. During this time, we continued to keep in touch with her and advised her of her options post-release, and all the sources of support she could access in her local area, including specific domestic violence support, housing support and our courses. She signed up to take part in a course once released, and also moved into a mother and baby hostel away from her violent partner.

Her progress on arts educational courses at Clean Break was astounding; her confidence came on in leaps and bounds. Now, Elissa has completed several courses with us, from those tackling personal issues: Self Development, Being a Mother and Life Skills to a more skills based course, Set and Costume Design, which prepares students for further education and employment. She has also been working with Women in Prison (a charity supporting women through advice, support and advocacy) and is now contributing actively to its Women Moving Forward campaign, which brings together women in prison/women offenders to campaign on issues affecting them. She is also regularly volunteering in a charity shop and has maintained sobriety and abstinence from drugs and alcohol for ten months – the longest she has been sober in twenty years. Along with addressing her drinking and drugs problems, Elissa has addressed the violent behaviour that caused her initial arrest and has not reoffended. She has also retained custody of her child.

Elissa says of her progress that, “My life is full of positive things now”.

This is only one of many such stories.

Find out more

For more information visit www.cleanbreak.org.uk. Clean Break has been awarded Arts Council England’s Catalyst Arts funding, to develop its fundraising model. £240k will be delivered across three years, matching new funds to be raised by the company. To find out ways to support the company, visit www.cleanbreak.org.uk/supportus or you can contact Lillian Ashford, our Development Manager on Lillian.Ashford@cleanbreak.org.uk and 020 7482 8619.

We would be pleased to take any referrals onto our education programme if you work with any women who may benefit – contact Jacqueline Stewart on 020 7482 8600. We are also always looking for volunteers, in particular anyone who can talk to students about recent and upcoming changes in the law regarding benefits, legal aid and housing. If you are in a position to help, please contact Lilian Ashford above.

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