March 19, 2021

A Reflection on The Pains of Punishment Seminar

In wake of the physical restrictions of the Coronavirus pandemic, in early December a virtual congregation of students, scholars and practitioners hosted by the University of Sheffield were privileged enough to preview the short play Sweatbox. Written by Chlöe Moss in conjunction with the Clean Break Theatre Company, Sweatbox reflects the experiences of women within a prison transport vehicle - outside of the current circumstances this would have been staged as an immersive performance, with the audience also shut inside the prison van. After viewing the short feature, talks were delivered by three speakers – Dr Gilly Sharpe (a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield), Swaine Williams (Independent Consultant, formerly from the Prison Reform Trust) and Claire Morley (of the Ministry of Justice) - which are discussed in greater detail below.

While theatre and live performances are some of the experiences which have fallen victim to the restrictions of the pandemic, its transference to a digital medium has seen Sweatbox triumph in immersive, gripping and overwhelmingly powerful theatre/film. Within the short but impactful running time, the stories of three women being transported to prison are unravelled to reveal the inextricability of their victimhood and vulnerabilities from their incarceration and criminal label, leaving audiences questioning how imprisonment could be deemed an appropriate response to any of these women’s circumstances. The performance’s confinement to the prison transportation van thrusts the viewer in to the claustrophobic and enclosed world of the women within its boundaries. The reflection of hardened, desensitised attitudes is quickly eroded by uncertainty and apprehension which echo around the van as the women are stirred by their arrival to prison and we start to hear of their experiences through direct and unflinching dialogue with the audience as well as each other.

The brutality of the metal parameters these women find themselves in, as well as the consciousness these women have of the degrading nature of this ‘transport’ is reflected in its comparison to the captivity of ‘battery hens’ made by one of the women. The lack of response to the women’s cries of distress is a tragic reflection of the use of imprisonment due to the continual disregard of women’s circumstances and the potential impacts of such punishment, with this disregard culminating in the devastating revelation of one of the women’s pregnancy. Within the cruel surrounding however, the subtle tropes of femininity such as the long, red fingernails of one prisoner mirrors in the essence the central features within the film’s message – the contrasts drawn between the hardened strength of the women intertwined with their vulnerabilities is choreographed so as to emphasise the victimhood often overlooked in depictions of female offenders, emphasising the oscillation between coping and suffering, and exposing the tragedy of their incarceration. The diversity of experiences that are shared between the women, such as instances of abuse, former imprisonment and addiction, as well as the stark differences in their lives and subsequent attitudes reveals the shared and overarching failure by the system within which they are trapped. The raw authenticity of the performance is a testament to the importance of these artistic outlets, and the focus on both their victimhood as well as the tendency for such suffering to go ignored or belittled shows the desperate need for a more empathetic approach in both the criminal justice system and the community.

The question ‘can you hear me?’ which is shouted by one of the female prisoners is therefore one that reverberates beyond the confines of the prison van and beyond the performance, with the women recounting stories in which they, and other women like them, have not been heard or listened to. Discussions and arguments between the women reveal the lived and personal realities which are reflected in the statistics shown to the audience after the van door is finally thrown open, and the women are harshly addressed by a prison officer. These statistics illuminate the current and ongoing trend of the criminalisation and imprisonment of vulnerable women, and the importance of mediums and interventions provided by Clean Break and the work of Women, Theatre, Justice in not only exposing these experiences to those of us outside, but allowing women reduced to these encounters to be empowered, and to share these events and their effects through their own words and actions. In celebrating the achievements of these projects and their importance in delivering opportunities of advocacy and education to imprisoned women, the seminar also highlighted why there is a need for such work, and the necessity in its continuation.

Following the screening, Dr Gilly Sharpe delivered an important talk on women’s experiences when confined by the label of ‘criminal’, positioning these persistent and deep-rooted issues within the context of austerity, which in recent years has been found to disproportionately impact women. The gendered impacts of fiscal cuts are inextricable from the continued issues faced by vulnerable women outside of as well as within the Criminal justice system, with Gilly’s lecture reflecting the importance and immediacy of emphasising this context. Following this, Katy’s talk provided hard-hitting yet vital and necessary listening, mirroring the play closely in its capacity to transfix viewers or listeners despite its emotive nature, and enlightened the audience still further to the idea of the timeline of women’s victimhood and experiences and how these are responded to in the criminal justice system. Claire subsequently delivered a pertinent talk highlighting gaps that exist between the aspiration and reality in practice relating to the management and supervision of women offenders. Attention was drawn to the three priorities of the Ministry of Justice’s Female Offending Strategy, including touch points in the community as to reduce the number of women in the Criminal Justice System, as well as recognising the specific needs of the women who do enter this system and the increased need for time to approach these issues. Together these talks illuminated a roadmap of the continuing issues faced by women, alongside the need to re-examine and contextualise how women’s experiences change and develop. The underlying and continual need to listen to the women who are often ignored or marginalised by and within the Criminal Justice System, and the need to respond to women’s specific needs and vulnerabilities was therefore threaded throughout these talks, providing an important reflection on the power of performance viewed prior. 

The ‘virtual’ nature of the seminar and performance due to the COVID-19 pandemic still further supports the need to ensure that women in prison and the criminal justice system are given platforms, such as those provided by Clean Break, upon which their experiences can be articulated and listened to, and that they are given the tools with which they can disassemble the gendered depictions often established in the wake of female criminality, as well as the tools and support with which they can construct and portray their own narratives with accuracy and meaning. In sharing the experiences of these women through the immersive play, the persistent failures and victimhood experienced are shown in the unfiltered, gritty and brave performances given, demonstrating to the audience the importance of these performances, and of the arts, as a vehicle of engagement and empowerment for female prisoners, and as a source of knowledge and encouragement for audiences being awoken to or reminded of  the harmful, gendered experiences of criminalisation and imprisonment.


Eve Orange is a Masters student in International Criminology at the University of Sheffield, with a particular interest in the criminology of war and gender politics. She can be contacted by Instagram @eveoraa and LinkedIn

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