Social Justice

Changemakers: Unlocking the potential of young offenders

Jess Thorpe is helping offenders express themselves through drama

In Scotland’s central belt, scores of imprisoned young men and boys are signing up to drama training. They’re in Polmont’s young offenders institution and led by Jess Thorpe, who has never stopped fighting for their opportunity to turn life around through storytelling. She’s behind a series of radical theatre programmes in prisons across Scotland and beyond, founded a charity to make arts a fundamental part of prison life and even took her work to the US. Now she’s on a mission to take the arts to every prisoner in the country.

“I’ve seen first-hand just how massively arts opportunities affect everything,” Thorpe, 37, told The Big Issue. “It changes their willingness to get involved in education, relationships with their families, their health and wellbeing. Some people don’t think that’s important – but fundamentally it’s how we’re going to create a safer country.”

Having grown up in Penrith, Thorpe moved to Glasgow aged 18 to study contemporary performance practice at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS). Even then she was particularly interested in whose stories were allowed to be told on the stage, and who told them. Eventually taking up a position as a lecturer in applied performance there, one of her classes spent a week in residency at HMP Perth creating a show with the prisoners there. When she visited to see it performed, everything changed.

“Even before the performance I found being in a prison completely affecting. I wondered: are these spaces making people safer or better? After the show, the governor stood up and said it had been an amazing experience for the guys. Then one of the participants stood up, completely impromptu, and said ‘If it’s so amazing, why don’t we get more of it?’ That question has been driving me ever since.”

In 2009, RCS didn’t have an intake of students for Thorpe’s course, so she asked if she could put her teaching hours into Perth prison, where she would run a weekly drama class. The university and prison agreed, and Thorpe was an artist in residence there for seven years.

Thorpe went on to set up similar programmes in 10 other prisons, before she went to work on prison theatre projects around Detroit and Connecticut, where she explored the way theatre could bring families closer after the imprisonment of a relative had torn them apart.

“Art isn’t a treat, it’s necessary for people who have often been let down by systemic problems and inequality in society,” Thorpe says. “They’ve had access to nothing and they’ve been told that they’re good at nothing. People talk about building confidence as if that’s a soft thing, but it’s everything!”

Back home, Thorpe helped set up the Scottish Prison Arts Network, now Justice and Arts Scotland, a charity working to bring together artists keen to improve the prospects of people in custody.  In 2018, declared Scotland’s Year of Young People, Thorpe was commissioned to create a show with the boys at HMYOI Polmont. It proved so successful that in February she teamed up with charity Barnardo’s to launch a youth theatre in the prison, the first in a young offenders’ institution.

“It’s not easy to say they’re going off to do drama when they’re so worried about their image and how to survive in that kind of environment,” she says. “But it just keeps getting more popular.”

Thorpe tries to get all the “gatekeepers” of the prison service present for the performances, in the hope that it will influence them to make good choices for people locked up in Scotland.

“In Polmont, they’re working on a Christmas show right now. It’s a really difficult time in prison. We work on a show just for their families specifically to help them connect with them around the festive period.”

Last year, 12 men in Perth worked tirelessly for 10 weeks to put on Aladdin for their families. It gave their children the opportunity to make positive memories. “I’ve had conversations with families who say ‘I’ve never seen my dad like that, I didn’t know my son could do that’. Some of these shows are examples of the most positive parenting I’ve ever seen. And it helps end the generational cycle of crime.”

Thorpe expects she’ll continue to come up against her biggest challenge – introducing theatre programmes within the parameters of the system, where the infrastructure wasn’t necessarily designed for putting on arts performances – but believes it’s about time we take some of the most at-risk parts of the population and build them back up. “If we’re going to imprison people, lets at least make sure we don’t leave them more angry and isolated than they were before,” she says.

We want you to nominate someone you think is going to be making a difference in 2020. Find out more about how to put the most inspiring thinkers, agitators and innovators forward for our top 100 here.

Illustration: Matthew Brazier

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