Trapped by the System, Released by Creativity

Each year the Institute for Social Justice Student prize is awarded to a final year undergraduate student. The prize recognises investment, engagement and understanding of social justice issues in a manner that has impacted upon both the student and the wider community. The 2022 ISJ Student Prize winner is Beth Lally, graduate of the BA Drama: Education and Community programme. In this blog post she discusses her work with the Prison Partnership Project and her belief in the gift of creativity for social change.

Image by Beth Lally. An artistic depiction towards dyslexia.

Throughout my life, the creative arts have always been something I’ve grabbed onto to give me direction and stability. I struggled in school with what society labels as ‘core subjects’ – English, Maths, Science. This made me feel uninspired and worthless. Then when I was 14, I auditioned to be the Artful Dodger in my school’s performance of ‘Oliver!’ and got the part. Me? A lead role? Maybe this is my thing. I found I connected with drama, art and music and was finally able to express myself in ways I never had before. As Nathan Dick says, ‘Art has the power to transform lives.’ I knew from that moment onwards that I wanted to give others this gift of creativity, particularly to those who don’t have easy access due to failings in today’s society. I wanted to use my skills to make a difference.

Beth Lally

As someone who identifies as a woman and a feminist, I have experienced discrimination, sexism and misogyny on a daily basis. I therefore want my work to be centred around women, making them feel powerful and fighting for social justice. My entire degree has been focused on social justice, whether that be the criminal justice system, systems around homelessness and women, or systems involving young people. However, I first began exploring social justice in the final years of secondary school when I was discovering university courses. I came across York St John and in particular read about the university’s Prison Partnership Project (PPP). I remember feeling instantly inspired by the values and work described. The PPP programmes “build on prisoner’s existing strengths and potential and encourage positive engagement and creativity, in order to promote meaningful personal change and to support restorative justice”. I knew that, yes, this sounds like me and I decided on that basis to attend YSJ. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to have taken part in various projects with the PPP throughout the course of my degree.

Women involved within the criminal justice system are extremely disadvantaged and at risk. Although they are in prison because they have committed a crime, according to the Prison Reform Trust a large number are “highly likely to be victims as well as offenders”. A huge percentage of these women are manipulated into crime by others or are committing a crito defend and protect themselves or their family – more often than not, from men. There is a huge lack of support for these women in our society as it’s controlled by mostly privileged white rich men. I therefore decided for my independent project and research in third year to collaborate with both the PPP and their other project ‘On the Out’, to bring creative arts to women who are in one way or another involved in or effected by the criminal justice system. I developed creative booklets for women in two local prisons – HMP New Hall and HMP Askham Grange – to complete during covid lockdowns. Having access to creative arts is proven to improve the wellbeing of residents, boost self-esteem, grow confidence and can be therapeutic. Therefore, it was absolutely paramount that during lockdowns, we provide the women with an outlet to let their creativity blossom and allow them to express complicated feelings when being locked up for 23 hours a day.

Poem created by women at Changing Lives – ‘Women Are’.

Alongside that endeavour, I facilitated a series of workshops with women at Changing Lives, a UK-wide charity that focuses on homelessness, domestic violence, substance misuse and unemployment. Due to their circumstances, women at Changing Lives live very chaotic lifestyles, so it was essential that we provided a sustained weekly practice that allowed them to explore their life stories and reimagine their identities in a safe and creative manner. We did lots of written and practical work, including creating characters, improvisation, devising, storytelling and poetry writing. Throughout the process I watched the women grow in confidence and see themselves not as an ex-criminal, a homeless person or an addict, but as an artist, a storyteller, an actor, a powerful woman. When women work with other women, beautiful things happen. Just one example of the amazing work we created together is a poem they wrote and named ‘Women Are’. At the beginning of the process, some of the participants would never have seen themselves as a strong woman, so the creation of this piece was a real milestone in their journeys and proves the need for creativity in the lives of those marginalised by society.

Since completing my undergraduate degree, I have begun a master’s course in Applied Theatre at York St John University and plan to focus my independent projects on the creative arts in prisons. I have such a huge passion for using the arts to fight for social justice and believe everyone deserves to have access to creative arts, so I wanted to gather more experience that will hopefully lead to a career within community theatre.