On the Inside

On The Inside: a project in HMP Peterborough’s Mother and Baby Unit

We were delighted to commission Geese Theatre to run a series of workshops at HMP Peterborough exploring life in prison as a mother. The project, On The Inside, brought together our research on motherhood in prison with Geese’s 30 years of experience facilitating interactive theatre within the criminal justice system as part of the rehabilitation process.

We worked with Liz Brown of Geese and playwright and academic Dr Helena Enright to explore 100 years of maternal incarceration and examine how our research resonates with the women’s own contemporary experiences. From the workshops with the women, and drawing on and weaving through archival material, Helena and Geese produced a scripted piece of Theatre of Testimony which would be read in HMP Peterborough and at project events as well as being performed at Bedlam Festival in Birmingham in October 2019.

Dr Rachel Bennett and Professor Hilary Marland attended a workshop with the women on Monday 14 May 2018 and share some of their thoughts below.

The workshop began with us introducing ourselves and our research and talking to the women in the group to hear a little more about why they had decided to take part in the project. After introducing them to historical sources, including photographs, newspaper articles, and personal testimonies of ex-prisoners and prison staff from the last 100 years, we asked the women to explore the materials to see what themes and issues resonate with their own experiences as mothers in prison today.

This exercise prompted some very interesting discussions of practices surrounding the imprisonment of mothers, and in some cases their children, and how they have changed over the last century. However, they also highlighted areas of continuity, and even areas where current policy could be informed by previous practices. A strong message that came from the day was that the women wanted to be seen as mothers in prison instead of prisoners with children.

Geese went on to participate in panel sessions at a workshop on maternal health in prison hosted at Warwick in June 2018, A Century of Maternal Incarcerationand at a conference, Healthy Inside: Arts, History, Policy and Practice in Prisoner Health, held at the Shard, London in December 2018, also performing excepts from the Theatre of Testimony script, Playing the Game, at both events. There was also a reading of an early draft of the script, involving the women of HMP Peterborough in July 2018, when the women were able to provide comments and their initial responses to the play.

The play was performed at Birmingham Repertory Theatre as part of Birmingham’s BEDLAM Festival 9-10 October 2019, followed by a panel discussion on the 10 October, with contributions from Rachel Bennett and Hilary Marland.

The audiences responded warmly to the performances: the feedback showed that the performance had increased awareness of the experiences of mothers in prison, and prompted emotional responses:

Very sad that women and their babies are treated so badly. Made me realise how little I knew about women in prison.’

It made me feel empathy for the situation of the mothers.’

Angry, frustrated, happy those voices could be heard.’

Best performance at Bedlam!’

Read our initial announcement of the project here