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Chapter 20: Drama in Prisons

Clark Baim

Revised March 29, 2007


From Geese Theatre's play, 'Violent Illusion.' (All masks by Sally Brookes)

Two characters meet in a prison visit scene.

A character 'lifts her mask' to reveal her inner thoughts and feelings.

Further Exercises

The following descriptions provide an overview of some of the key exercises used by Geese Theatre UK in thousands of workshops, groupwork programs and residencies since 1987 (Baim, Brookes and Mountford, 2002).

Safe and Dangerous Places: Ask everyone in the group to go a stand in a place in the room that for them represents a safe place. Go around and have each person say their name and why that place is safe. Next, do the same but this time make it a dangerous place. Go around and have people say their name and why that place may be dangerous. Encourage people to be inventive and to think imaginatively, e.g. ‘I am standing next to this flip chart because I could trip over it and do a triple somersault through the window, setting off the alarm and emptying the whole building.'

This is a general all-purpose exercise that serves several purposes. It gets people up and moving, it helps to build safety and group cohesion, and it also helps on a practical level to highlight potential hazards in the room you are working in.

The processing of this exercise can be very fascinating and useful. You can ask the group members what represents for them a safe or dangerous place, e.g. home, their neighbourhood, the prison, a family gathering, being alone, having no friends, etc. This can move on to an exploration of what factors make potentially dangerous situations safer, and what role they can play in making themselves safer and lowering their risk of re-offending.

Anyone Who: The group sits in a circle of chairs, with the facilitator standing in the middle. There are no extra chairs in the circle. Facilitator says: “I am in the middle of the circle and I want a seat. The way I find a seat is by saying something about me that I might share in common with others of you, such as 'anyone who wears a watch,' or 'anyone who has a brother or sister,' or even something more personal, like 'anyone who finds it difficult to try to change.' It can be almost anything, but it has to be true about me personally. Then, everyone who shares that in common with me changes seats. As you've guessed, someone else will be left standing in the middle, and then they do the same thing. Now remember, it's not a race, so you should not bump into anyone, and be careful not to tip over your chair when you reach it. This is a non-contact sport! Also, you can't shift to the chair either side of you, and you can't go back to the seat you came from (too easy). Finally, if you can't think of anything, say 'all change,' and we will all change seats at the same time.”

This is a favorite. If you use it at the right time and with enough energy, groups will find it a good energiser as well as a good group builder. Be aware that this is a passing high focus exercise, meaning that for a brief moment all eyes will be on one person. This can be threatening to some, particularly if the group is very new. It should be run in a brisk manner, as one of the factors making it less threatening is if people know they will only be 'in the spotlight' for a few seconds.
Anyone Who has a lot of rules, so prepare your introduction.
Variation. A lower energy but equally useful variation is Things We Have in Common:

Things We Have in Common: Have everyone in the group stand in a circle. In no particular order, one person at a time takes step forward into the circle and says something true about themselves in the form, ‘Join me in the circle if ….' Then, other people in the circle, if this is true of them and they choose to disclose it, step forward too. The leader can prompt people to share beliefs, experiences, likes and dislikes, hobbies, places visited, etc. When people have stepped forward, sometimes this can lead into important sharing. At other times, there may be no discussion but just a brief non-verbal acknowledgment of the common theme.

This is a very useful exercise for building groups and developing cohesion. It conveys the important message that ‘we are all more than just our offences' and makes groups of offenders more willing to engage with each other and the facilitators.

This exercise can also serve as a means of measuring group cohesion and trust, because well-bonded groups will feel able to share more important and personal material. Where groups are still at a tentative, early stage of development, you can point out to them that this exercise can help them identify how much they are willing to share with each other (e.g. ‘I notice that you are sharing things like hobbies and favourite sports. I wonder what sort of things you would share with each other if we ran this exercise again in two weeks' time, after you all get to know each other much better'). Sometimes, this simple prompt will spontaneously encourage deeper sharing. It is not uncommon for group members to share quite important personal information on the first day of the group (e.g. ‘Join me in the circle if you are here for committing a violent offence / hitting your wife or girlfriend / stealing / committing a sexual offence').

Continuum: (This technique is also known as a "spectogram." Have the group imagine a line running through the room along the floor, and give each end of the line a label such as ‘no / yes', ‘a little / a lot', ‘agree / disagree', ‘true of me / not true of me', ‘never / always', ‘0% / 100%'. How you label each end of the continuum will depend on the nature of the question you are about to ask. Questions or polling statements might include:

There are of course an endless variety of questions you can ask, depending on what you want to highlight. One useful motivational twist on this exercise is to ask the group participants where they would have placed themselves in response to a question one year ago, and where they would like to be able to place themselves in six months, or a year. Allow them to go to the different place on the line and speak as if they are at that place on the line at that different point in time. For example, if a participant says that he currently feels little control over his offending behaviour, but he places himself at ‘100% control' as his six month goal, you can interview him briefly from the point in the future when he has achieved such control. What is it like being in control of your behaviour in this way? What are the benefits for you and the people around you? What did it take to get here? Etc. This can be a very powerful motivating experience for the participants.

Master and Servant: Divide the group into pairs, A and B. For two minutes, person A can instruct person B to do anything (within the bounds of decency, safety and physical capability) and person B must do it. After two minutes, swap over. Afterwards, ask people how they made use of their power when they were the ‘master'. What were they asked to do when they were ‘servant?' Ask what thoughts and feelings they had while doing the task, in both roles. Ask which role they preferred. Ask, ‘Where else is your life have you felt like the servant?’ (Remember that all personal level questions like this one may potentially raise quite difficult or painful emotions and thoughts for participants, so be aware of the boundaries of your work and your level of training before asking such a question). ‘Like the master? What does this exercise tell you about the temptations of power?’

If it is appropriate, you may take this discussion on to the level of processing internal thoughts: ‘If both the master and the servant roles are roles inside you, what thoughts and feeling rule you? What decision do you want to make about controlling thoughts that may have ruled you in the past but which you no longer value? How can we practice that here?'

This may lead to some quite profound variations where group members are enacting pro-offending ‘master' voices and rebellious, pro-social ‘servant' voices that refuse to cooperate. The servants' revolt becomes a metaphor for the participants' new thinking overcoming the old thinking that led him to offend. Used in this way, the exercise can be a powerful means of reinforcing self-efficacy, motivation to change and also relapse prevention.

Obstacle Course: Divide the group into pairs, A and B. Have everyone set out an obstacle course in the middle of the room, using chairs, tables, etc. The obstacle course should be one where there are gaps wide enough for people to walk through without having to climb over obstacles.

Line the pairs up all around the edges of the obstacle course, and set as their goal the side of the course opposite where they are now. Person A closes his eyes, and person B guides him through the obstacle course using verbal commands. If person A touches any obstacles, the pair must start again. All of the pairs do this at the same time, so a great deal of focus and concentration is needed. Swap the pairs over so everyone gets a chance to be in both roles.

After all of the pairs have completed the task, ask the participants questions such as, ‘What did you have to do to accomplish the task? What made it work well? What didn't work so well? Who opened their eyes at any point? What thought did you have that allowed you to close your eyes again? How well did the two of you cooperate together? How does this exercise relate to goal setting? What are some of your goals? What might the obstacles be? What is the best way to negotiate obstacles? What would it mean if you could anticipate obstacles and plan ahead? Etc.'

This exercise is highly adaptable and can address varied themes such as goal setting, motivation to change, relapse prevention, self-efficacy, trust and many others.

The Way I See It: Work with the participants to develop a simple story of a dramatic event or crime where there are significant consequences, e.g. injury, loss of property, loss of trust or respect for a person in the story. There should be at least three people in the story. As an alternative, you could base the story on a news article, as long as it does not directly relate to any of the participants.
After the group members have become familiar with the story, have different group members speak from the point of view of different key players in the story. Have them tell the story as they see it. For example, in a story about a crime, the offender may feel justified, the victim may feel devastated and traumatised, the relative may feel powerless and also furious with the offender, the police officer may want to ‘get the bad guy and lock him up.' Etc. Swap the roles around so that people have the experience of speaking from different points of view. Where appropriate, use frozen pictures / tableaux to dramatise the different perspectives. Or use role play if this is appropriate, e.g. enact the story from the differing points of view – ‘The way I see it.'

You can usefully relate this exercise to the Point of View Circle exercise (see the book for this), which highlights the importance of getting ‘the full picture' when considering an issue or event.

Ask the participants to relate this exercise to their own past offending behaviour. How might their thinking change when they take into account the points of view of everyone who has been affected by their behaviour. Do these people matter? Do their feelings matter? What are the consequences of offending for all parties? These questions can highlight themes of victim empathy, choices and making responsible new decisions.

This exercise is broadly similar to Whole Group Role Play (in the published chapter), but it has a different emphasis and uses fewer people.

Narrated Scenes: In this technique, the facilitator narrates simple actions for one or two characters in a scene to perform, in order to raise specific themes or address specific issues. The narration is scripted in advance, and can even be read out by the facilitator. For example, with one volunteer on the stage, the facilitator may narrate a simple series of actions as follows: "The man sits down and opens a letter that he is holding in his hands. He reads it silently. He slowly folds the letter and puts it back in its envelope. He leans forward and puts his head in his hands. He stays like this for some time." This scene can be processed by asking the observers, "What do you think was in the letter? Who was it from? What was his reaction? What emotions was he experiencing? What thoughts did he have? What else might the letter be about? What are his choices? What would you do? What should he do? What could you say to him to help him?" Etc. You can brainstorm with the observers all of the possibilities and then focus on suggestions that are relevant to the theme of the session. Depending on the aim (and the imagined content of the letter), this simple scene could lead into exploring issues such as victim empathy, consequences of offending, problem-solving, dealing with rejection or disappointment, relationship skills and communication skills, emotional self-control, and other themes. Narrated scenes are widely adaptable to any theme you can imagine. One suggestion: Keep your scenes to one or two people only, as they can otherwise get confusing.

Further Types of Role Play

The book chapter explains some types of role play. Here are some more:

Demonstration Role Play: In this type of role play, one or more participants portray a realistic demonstration of an actual situation they have faced recently. This may include a role play of some aspect of their offending behavior. The aim is to create a realistic sense of the types of pressure and difficulties the participant(s) face, in order that they can move onto to further role plays where they take other roles and practice new strategies. For example, one participant may enact a brief role play of a situation in which they faced peer pressure to offend. The participant would rehearse the role play with his partner in the role play, and then present it to the group. After presenting the role play, the group members could be invited to comment and the main role player (in psychodramatic terms, the protagonist) might be offered the chance to try dealing with the situation in a new way (see skills practice role play, below).

Role Play for Empathy, Feedback and Self-talk: This type of role play develops logically from demonstration role play because it encourages the main role player – the protagonist – who is facing a tricky situation to broaden his perspective. In practice, this type of role play is not so much a single type as a combination of three very useful techniques.

In the first technique, role play for empathy, the main role player is encouraged to reverse roles with the other key person in the role play, in order to experience that person's perspective. He will, in this role, learn what it feels like to be ‘in the other person's shoes' and to be on the receiving end of his own behaviour. The aim here is to develop empathic skills and to move beyond one's own narrow, ego-centric view of the world. For example, after a demonstration role play in which one inmate felt put down by another man and aggressively challenged him, the two main characters change roles and the main role player feels the full heat of the challenge. The main role player returns to his own role and is encouraged to process his learning from the other role and develop alternatives ways of coping with feeling put down or disrespected.

In the feedback technique, one role player speaks directly to another role player about how he experienced him during the scene. The two role players can be in or out of role when they give and receive this feedback, depending on what is appropriate at the time. For example, just after a role play in which Joe has tried to keep calm in the face of a provocation, Steve gives him feedback about how his character perceived Joe during the scene. The aim here is to encourage group participants to help each other develop pro-social coping skills by giving direct yet empathic feedback to each other.

In the self-talk technique, the participant is encouraged to state aloud what his strategy will be in the role play. This may happen before the role play begins or at intervals during the role play. It works like a theatrical aside; the other character(s) in the role play cannot hear what the person is saying to the onlookers. The aim is to encourage the ability of the participant / role player to clearly specify his thinking and behavioral strategies and to pre-plan what steps and skills he will use to negotiate a given situation. It can help bring clarity to what might otherwise be a seemingly vague or intimidating challenge.

Monologues: This is another name for the psychodramatic technique known as monodrama. Basically, it means that one person plays all of the roles in the role play. This makes it a particularly useful technique in one-to-one work, but it can also be used with groups. In monologue, the main role player is given the opportunity to speak in the first person from the perspective of different people, or from different parts of himself. For example, the main role player could speak about his offence from the point of view of himself, then one of his victims, a family member of the victim, his arresting officer, one of his family members, his social worker, his key worker, etc. He is then offered the opportunity to consolidate his learning and use it for his personal development. Alternatively, he may be given the chance to speak from the different parts of himself that are in favor of or opposed to offending. For example, he could speak from ‘the part of me that likes to be violent and feel powerful' and then from ‘the part of me that feels afraid, or, the part that knows this is foolish and that this behavior is going to end up with me killing someone and serving a life sentence.' The participant is then encouraged to balance the two opposing parts and decide which part he would like to develop into the dominant voice.

Role Tests, also known in psychodrama as spontaneity tests, are intended to test the participant's ability to respond adequately in a spontaneous situation, without rehearsal or any substantial prior information. To conduct this type of role play, the facilitator first designs a scenario that is custom-tailored for one or more of the group participants in order to test skills that they have practiced in recent sessions (i.e. skills that have been important goals for them and which they have practiced sufficiently well to merit testing on). Alternatively, role tests can be used at the start of a group in order to assess a participant's skills and needs, with the aim of going on to help them develop new skills using skills practice or forum role plays. Role tests can also be done at the end of groups in order to assess progress. (A behavioural rating tool for role tests can be found in Baim, Brookes and Mountford, 2002.)

At the start of a role test, the participant enters the stage area and is given a few basic details about the situation he is about to encounter. He is asked to deal with the situation as if it were in real life and to the best of his abilities (a no touch / non-violence rule must be agreed before-hand). In contrast to skills practice role play, he is not given the opportunity to rehearse his response, nor will he be able to repeat the scene if he is not happy with his performance. In general, facilitators play the other roles in role tests, because they have the crucial responsibility of pitching the level of difficulty so that the challenge is difficult but just achievable for the participant.

Some examples of role test scenarios used in prison and probation settings:

After role tests, the participant should be given the opportunity to give himself feedback about how he handled the situation, i.e. ‘what I did well and what I can improve on.' The facilitator in the other role should also give feedback, as should the observing participants.

Adaptations Needed When Working with Offender Populations

To offer just a few examples of how work with offenders may differ from work with other special populations:

Use of touch: Many of the participants will have a history of abusive or coercive touch, so it is important to understand what different kinds of physical touch mean to the participants before using exercises that involve touch, e.g. trust games.

Silence: A group worker's silence may be interpreted as weakness or fear. If you use silence, it is best to explain how and why you are allowing silences.

Collusion: Group leaders must be careful about coming into prisons with an overt ‘political' agenda, particularly attitudes that imply a feeling of solidarity with offenders, suggesting that criminals are oppressed, powerless, not responsible for their decisions, or unable to function in society. If you arrive with such an agenda, you will be seen as naïve – by inmates as well as staff– and you will undermine your credibility with the criminal justice system and with the general public (including the victims of crime). You are also unlikely to be invited back. The great challenge is to treat all participants individually, but within their social / historical context, while balancing individual responsibility with external influences.

Demeanor: Your demeanor in the institution will be closely watched by staff and inmates, particularly if you are a guest worker. Staff in the institution will want assurance that you will not pose a security risk for yourself and others. Therefore it is necessary to carry yourself with a professional manner and dress accordingly. Many assumptions are made – by staff as well as inmates - about artists and drama workers coming into prisons to work (e.g. they are irresponsible ‘lefties', they are there for the thrill of working around ‘dangerous' people, they don't know what they are doing, they may form relationships with inmates and help them escape, they use drugs and may try to smuggle some in, etc.) If you are going to start working in prisons, at the very least you owe it to other arts workers to take the work seriously in order to maintain the credibility of the work and not to reinforce stereotypes and prejudices about drama and arts workers in prisons.

Your security: If you are working on your own, particularly if you are a woman working in a men's prison, be realistic about your safety and about how the inmates view you. Remember that many of the inmates you work with will be in prison for serious crimes of violence, including violence against women. Make sure you know all of the security procedures in the prison, and try, wherever possible, to have a member of prison staff (e.g. a guard / officer) with you or outside the room where you are working. Also be aware that when you work consistently with the same inmates over a period of days or weeks, it is tempting to let down your guard because of a feeling of familiarity. This can, however, be the very time when you should be most on guard, because one or more of your participants – if they are so inclined - will have had a lot of time to build up expectations or fantasies about you.

Require voluntary participation: Establish from the outset with the agency contracting for your services that you will only work with participants who have volunteered for this type of workshop. It can be draining and dispiriting, to put it mildly, to be faced with a group of unwilling participants who have been marched unknowingly into your workshop.

Have a clear aim: Work with your sponsor at the institution to focus on the specific aims of the project, and the methods you will use to achieve them. This will have several benefits: The participants will know what they are signing up for, your sponsor will know what they can expect, and you and the institution will be able to assess the value of what you are offering against your stated aims.

Establish ground rules: When starting your group, involve the participants in establishing and obtaining agreement on the norms for how the group will run. Then keep to them and insist that the participants do, too.

Level of focus: With offender populations, it is particularly important to monitor the degree of focus and challenge you are giving to any individual. Too much focus or too much challenge can result in the participant acting out or closing down. Well-intentioned challenge can quickly become public shaming if delivered inappropriately. When in doubt, mentally reverse roles with the participants: How are they experiencing you as a facilitator?

Contacting a Prison

In most prisons there will be a member of staff who is responsible for making arrangements with outside organizations or artists. Depending on the sort of program or work you are offering, you may find it best to contact first the key staff. Some titles of positions you might want to contact include: education coordinator, director of psychology, recreation activities coordinator, chief of probation or social work, chaplain, artist-in-residence, deputy warden or governor, physical education coordinator, director of staff training, coordinator of family visitation, or the pre-release or rehabilitation team. When in doubt, write to the warden or governor of the prison and explain what you want to offer. They will direct you to the relevant member of staff to take it to the next step. Bear in mind, however, that prisons are often financially stretched and there is usually very little funding for ‘optional' or ‘discretionary' drama or arts input. Because of this, you may do well to seek out partnership (e.g. half-and-half) funding through local arts councils, charities, not-for-profits, community organisations and corporate charities.

Organizations such as the Anne Peaker Centre in the UK coordinate training events for drama and arts practitioners in order to prepare them for the unique challenges of working with offenders and in prisons.

Contacts and websites of interest  Author's email:

Geese Theatre UK's website:

The website for John Bergman, the founder of Geese Theatre USA:   The Theatre in Prisons and Probation Programme, based at the Drama Department of the University of Manchester, England. TiPP sponsors many different applications of drama with offenders, and offers training. Click on their arts-in-corrections link for interesting perspectives on arts and drama in prisons.   This site includes some useful articles on work with offenders.  A discussion group and notice board for artists and organisations working in prisons.

References and further reading

Baim, C., Brookes, S. and Mountford, A. (eds.) (2002). The Geese Theatre Handbook: Drama with offenders and people at risk. Winchester: Waterside Press.

Bergman, J. and Hewish, S. (2003). Challenging Experience: An experiential approach to the treatment of serious offenders. Oklahoma City: Wood N Barnes.

Van Mentz, M. (1983). The Effective Use of Role Play. London: Kogan Page.

Yardley-Matwiejczuk, K. (1997). Role Play: Theory and Practice. London: Sage.

And also references listed in appendix B and in the published chapter.

About the author: Clark Baim, M.Ed., Dip. Psychodrama Psychotherapy (UKCP), is an independent psychodramatist, trainer and theatre director / teacher. He was the founder and first Director of Geese Theatre UK, a company specializing in work with offenders. He is a national trainer for the UK Probation Service and continues to specialize in working with offenders.