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04 December, 2012

By Lavanya Kala

‘In 1995 I was sent to prison for a crime I did commit.’ This was the opening sequence of Charlie Ryder’s play at a Prison Week Event in the London Centre of Initiatives of Change on 20 November, followed by a talkback panel discussion on restorative justice.

Charlie Ryder’s play 'Prison?'
Charlie Ryder’s play 'Prison?'
Prison?, a play by Charlie Ryder depicts his time in prison and the events leading to his imprisonment. In October 1993, he was involved in protests against the British National Party (BNP) in support of Stephen Lawrence, the British teenager murdered in a racist attack. Charlie was sent to prison after throwing a brick at a police officer when protesting to shut down BNP headquarters at Welling in South East London. Charlie’s gripping true story is conveyed through art, utilising puppetry, masks and physical theatre.

Witnessing the gradual progression of a man broken down by a flawed system that dehumanises prisoners, the audience was emotionally moved with Charlie’s story of change. He is now involved in part-time work as an Outreach Worker at HMP Wormwood Scrubs Community Chaplaincy providing mentoring and support to prisoners on their release from prison. Charlie uses art as a form of therapy and to raise awareness on the issues he dealt with in prison. His strength of character was revealed by his contributions throughout the evening, despite the trauma he had experienced during childhood and whilst in prison.

Anita Amendra, Initiatives of Change UK Project Manager of the Sustainable Communities Programme, stated in her opening address that it is important to ‘consider the power of the arts as a means for people to not only recover and heal from past trauma, but also as a tool to raise awareness of the injustice and the human abuse many people have suffered.’ Interestingly through the progression of the play, Charlie mentions that his father was an alcoholic which angered him and contributed to him building up resentment. Drawing on Charlie’s experience, Amendra expressed how Charlie had realised that ‘meeting violence with yet more violence’, is not the way to deal with traumatic situations fraught with complexities.

Charlie Ryder’s play 'Prison?'
Charlie Ryder’s play 'Prison?'
Raven Kaliana, who was the second speaker for the evening, is the director of Outspiral, which utilises puppet theatre and films to engage the public on abuse, child pornography, trafficking and the effects of trauma. Raven, having herself been victimised and survived, talked primarily about the power of transformation and reconnection through creativity. She highlighted the need for community involvement and cohesion in order to enable victims to escape, and for survivors to access support. She felt that the ‘community needs to come together’ to aid in the prevention of these crimes.

A strong believer in art as a means for healing trauma, Raven has been involved with Charlie in making a documentary film entitled Stories of Healing, featuring true stories of trauma and healing. It uses puppetry and shadow puppetry to convey the stories.

Concurrent with Charlie’s story is the concept of restorative justice which allows offenders and victims to communicate, with offenders hopefully accepting some responsibility and with both parties optimistically gaining some closure. In the talkback panel discussion, questions were posed about restorative justice. Charlie said that healing is not used in the criminal justice sector and that often the people being imprisoned have some form of mental illness.

Panellist Andrew Hillas, Assistant Chief Officer for Restorative Justice, London Probation Trust, said that as a society we have to avoid unnecessarily criminalising people. Restorative justice, he stated, is the middle ground between severe punishment which dehumanises the offenders and rehabilitation, which doesn’t effectively bring justice for victims. It encompasses the notion that not everyone is wholly bad and that there is hope for redemption for some offenders. Hillas also said that as a society we have to avoid unnecessarily criminalising people.

Charlie Ryder’s play 'Prison?'
Charlie Ryder’s play 'Prison?'
A fellow panellist, Michael Kavanagh, Acting Head of Prison Chaplaincy, told the audience that they do their utmost to prepare the offenders for ‘release’ and ‘reintegration’ by trying to pinpoint what the act of reparation is and putting that hurt to rest.

Whilst in prison Charlie received a letter of support from British Holocaust survivor, Leon Greenman, who was in Auschwitz. Greenman’s letter said, ‘I feel bitter and sick inside; because of the injustice without feeling and understanding towards the fighters for freedom and justice.’ Charlie thought about Leon Greenman and what he must have gone through in the Holocaust. Greenman also said in his letter that ‘one day the wronged will be rightened again’; this thought and his support empowered him. He kept this letter in a scrapbook with poetry and artwork to record his time inside prison. For Charlie this process was therapeutic.

Working with art allowed Charlie Ryder to experience a transition from a position of victimisation to one of empowerment.

Photos by Severine Chavanne

Lavanya Kala is a graduate in Communications from Australia. She worked with the Communications Team of IofC UK.


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