The Mill Gate Shopping Centre in Bury is the location of a rather unusual theatre installation from May 19 – 28. The Go to Jail project is currently on tour around the UK and everything about it – the set, the performers and its interactive nature – surprises, shocks and challenges the audience’s expectations. Of course that’s exactly what all good theatre should do but this innovative project leaves an impression long after you’ve headed home.
The Mill Gate Shopping Centre is home to a full-size replica prison cell, complete with regulation fixtures and fittings and even two real ‘prisoners’. Measuring 12 feet by 8 feet, the cell has been carefully assembled according to government regulations and visitors can go inside, take a look around and talk to the inmates about what life behind bars is really like.
The Go to Jail project is the brainchild of Saul Hewish and Chris Johnston, co-directors of arts organisation, Rideout. They’ve been working with prisoners for more than 30 years and they specialise in using arts-based approaches to prisoner rehabilitation.
This time they’ve turned their attention to the people on the outside – the general public – and their aim is to challenge the myths and misconceptions around prison life. “Unless you’ve been in prison or worked in a prison, your opinions and beliefs are essentially informed by what you read in the media,” explains Saul Hewish, “we wanted a way to move people beyond that immediate kneejerk response that all prisons are holiday camps.”
The ‘inmates’ are both actors and ex-prisoners and are highly skilled in the art of improvisation. They have to deal deftly and in character with any questions that visitors might ask. Nothing is scripted, nothing is off-limits and what happens in the cell is also streamed live online so prisoners remain in character even when there are no visitors.
Akachi Esi* is one of the actors involved in the project. He spent a number of years in prison for drug-related offences and since his release in 2005, he’s used acting and story-telling to share his prison experience and help young people avoid the same fate. “I was very keen to get involved in the Go to Jail project and help people understand what life is really like on the inside.”
There have been a whole range of visitors, a trainee prisoner officer, a magistrates’ adviser and a respectable middle-class man who began sweating as soon as he saw the prison breakfast pack – because it reminded him of his own time inside. The ones that have left the biggest impression on Akachi are the people whose children are either in prison or have been to prison. “They’ve always wondered about what the conditions are like so when they actually walk into the cell they get a sense of the physical experience. They ask you how you cope and it’s really comforting for them to get the view of someone who’s been inside.”
The project has already visited several venues around the country, most recently Birmingham Library, where there were more than 2,000 visits in 10 days. So far reactions to this unusual piece of art have been hugely positive, with comments such as, “It revealed a lot about the misconceptions that we had…thank you for showing us more truth.” Many were surprised at just how small the prison cell is, “What a fantastic innovative idea to give a representation of just how confined prisoners are but also a wonderful opportunity to talk to them about day-to-day routine.”
Saul Hewish from Rideout believes that the Go to Jail project has had quite a profound effect on some people, “I think where people have gone in thinking prison’s soft or easy then it has changed their views.” He believes that’s partly because the ‘prisoners’ give it a uniquely human perspective. “When something is generalised, people tend to be much more conservative about things like punishment, but when there’s a real story and they can engage with a real person they tend to become more liberal.”
Saul insists that Go to Jail is not intended to be a campaigning project but he and Chris Johnston hope it will engage the public enough to get them thinking more critically about what they read in the papers and perhaps be more sympathetic when it comes to prison reform. “It’s simply a theatre installation that’s trying to help people become a little more aware and maybe they’ll go back and talk to other people about it.”
If you’d like to see the Go to Jail project for yourself, it will be at the Mill Gate Shopping Centre in Bury from Thursday 19 to Saturday 28 May and is open for visitors between 11.00 am and 4.00 pm. Admission is free.
*Name has been changed