Taking Paper and String into a Prison – Part 2


We were in a different room for the next session. Four of the same men returned from the previous week and were keen to retrieve their puppets and continue working on them. We introduced the idea of a story line. We had steered them to reflect upon any aspects of themselves that they found within their puppet. This was a struggle at the beginning, as men inside prison aren’t always comfortable sharing personal emotions in a room of strangers. One man became particularly anxious at the idea of performing, after some reassurance he was able to contribute to the rest of the session. We encouraged the men to write their stories down. We gave them the option of using music. This again isn’t straightforward in the prison; we couldn’t bring in a CD or USB stick. We had to request a selection of music to be downloaded on a prison computer by an internal member of staff.

One man was very relaxed and spoke openly about what he planned to do with his puppet within the story. He often laughed during the session as he reflected about those who knew him on the outside and what they might think of what he was doing and how much he cared about his puppet and the additional props he had made.

For the final session we felt that any formal presentation wasn’t the right thing to do. However, we asked a few members of staff to attend the brief culmination, this was appreciated by both staff and performers. Unfortunately, only three of our four core members were present and one of the men appeared particularly low and disengaged at the start of the session. However, once we started to manipulate another puppet, we managed to draw him in. We’d managed to negotiate having a camera in the session and he took responsibility for taking photographs and commenting on what worked in terms of performance and what needed more attention. The three presented stories all showed a sense of escapism, one of our more consistent participants used a Spice Girls song as a theme. He exhibited considerable joy as he directed his puppet, a very different attitude to how he first came into the room. It is clear that much of the time in prison, the men feel like they have to wear a mask; this was a chance for them to drop the mask for a short period of time.

We discovered that one of our more regular men had a meeting with his lawyer and the Parole Board, of course this had to take precedence. However, the person’s involvement in this project would be seen as a positive activity that might be considered favourable in his personal review.

Final Thoughts…

Yes, we wished that we’d had greater numbers and more consistency. However, under these difficult circumstances the individuals that did take part, spoke positively about the experience and invested in the process. Projects take time to establish themselves in this environment; towards the end it felt like our visibility was starting to create more interest. Patience and perseverance are imperative.

Plan well in advance when working in a prison, don’t take anything for granted. This goes for any official paperwork, getting materials in to the venue, photo permissions, technical requirements, etc. You must have people on the inside helping with recruitment.

For security reasons the men were not allowed to take their puppets back to their prison cell, if they may have wished to. They were however going to go on display in the Learning Centre.


Angela Smith

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