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History, Theatre and Mental Health in Prison

History, Theatre and Mental Health in Prison

Prisoners' wellbeing and medical care

Mental illness, suicide and violence in prisons are seldom out of the news and are the subject of frequent inquiries and reports. have recently been much discussed. Professor Hilary Marland and her team worked with theatre practitioners to communicate their research on the history of mental disorder in prisons. They explored new ways to present their findings to audiences beyond the written word. The project contributed to wider public debates about the prison system and mental health, that involved policy makers, prison reform organisations, the public and prisoners. They also developed a series of projects that improved prisoners’ mental health outcomes.

The challenge

Since the birth of the modern prison system in the 1840s, prisons have contained disproportionate numbers of mentally ill people, Yet care for prisoners’ mental health has varied greatly..Many people enter prison with existing mental health diagnoses. Meanwhile prison discipline is likely to contribute to mental breakdown, that worsens existing conditions and produces new symptoms in many prisoners.

Notably, separate confinement, a system introduced in the nineteenth century, with inmates isolated in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, had a particularly devastating impact. Its legacy can be found in the continued use of solitary confinement and segregation today. Understanding the historical link between prisons and poor mental health provides important context that helps explain high rates of mental ill health, self-harm and suicide in the prison system today.

Our approach

Professor Marland and her team drew on prison reports and archives, including medical officers journals, medical literature and prison memoirs. The project team worked closely with several theatre companies to produce an array of performance-based projects, including:

  • Two new plays

  • A series of participatory theatre based projects in prisons

  • Three immersive audio works

  • Learning resources tying together outcomes and methods from the research

Our impact

The project has influenced public audiences, prison reformers and theatre companies alike. Professor Marland and her team worked with Talking Birds Theatre Company to co-devise ‘Disorder Contained’, a play exploring the historical imposition of solitary confinement. This showed audiences how these practices and extreme isolation produced mental breakdown. The team also worked with Fuel Theatre and audio artists Rachel Mars, Sabrina Mahfouz and Paula Varjack to create ‘Lock Her Up’, three audio pieces exploring solitary confinement, issues around motherhood in prison and female agency. The audio works were exhibited at venues including Tate Modern and Latitude Festival.

Importantly, prisoners themselves have benefitted directly from the team’s work through a series of residencies in three prisons. A project with Geese Theatre Company explored motherhood and mental wellbeing with the women of HMP Peterborough’s Mother and Baby Unit. This led to a new piece of Theatre of Testimony, ‘Playing the Game’, which combined historical sources with the experiences of women in prison today. This was performed at Bedlam Festival in Birmingham in October 2019.

Working with Rideout Theatre Company, Professor Marland and her team co-designed ‘Past Time’. This residency investigated the history of prison food. and allowed inmates to take part in the research and to earn qualifications in food hygiene and nutrition. The men also co-devised original pieces of theatre, performed for invited audiences and their fellow prisoners. Initially taking place at HMP Hewell, the team was later invited to develop three new residencies over the course of a year at HMP Stafford. ‘Staging Time’ explored themes of hard labour, weak-mindedness, and how conscientious objectors had contributed to health reform in prisons. Independent evaluations showed improved mental engagement and health among participants, a decline in drug and alcohol abuse, reduced violence,, better family relations and new support groups among the men. Many participants went on to positions of responsibility in prison.

The team’s partnerships have been held up as an example of good practice for those who want to understand the value of arts-based approaches to working with prison staff and inmates. A learning resource has been created for use in schools and criminal justice settings. The research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1840-2000’ (Principal Investigators, Professor Hilary Marland and Associate Professor Catherine Cox, University College Dublin).

Visit the project's website

Discover how the Arts Council is using Professor Marland's research to promote the arts in prison

Access Professor Marland's teaching resources about Victorian prisons

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