Creating space for women's stories

"Working with prison art has helped me to come to terms with my own experience. I had found it hard to align my new life with my time in prison, but it obviously drives me. It has been said that facilitating these art projects with groups of offenders is my art practice, each self contained project a piece of art - I certainly put my heart and soul into my work and feel driven and compelled to work with the community I was once part of. The prison community has a story to tell, often heartbreaking, compelling, extraordinary or scary. By creating art work, by using the language of art, we are able to express ourselves and communicate in a language far removed from the dry and prickly world of 'criminal justice', 'back to work schemes' and probation interviews. Personally, this is ultimately therapeutic and gives me new perspective on my experience. I see this in inmates I work with, they go on a journey over the project, they resolve something, or they forget for a moment where they are".

Carlotta Allum, Founder of Stretch.

Carlotta photo

The work of Stretch

Stretch is a charity founded by Carlotta Allum, a social entrepreneur and former prisoner. Ever since her custodial sentence 16 years ago and then finding out she was pregnant in a routine medical, she has felt driven and inspired to help female prisoners. Stretch has been delivering projects to disadvantaged groups since 2003 and aims to re-engage people through partnerships with museums and galleries and to increase life choices through cultural activity. Stretch projects are very diverse and range from visual arts, life and computer skills to drama.

Stretch has always looked for innovative ways to engage participants and informal learning projects that raise confidence and soft skills as much as technical or practical skills; the latest project is Digital Story Telling. One aim of the project is to reach women, who are often overlooked by education within the prison community and finds it hard to access services while on short sentences. ‘Story Box’ piloted a programme of work with female prisoners to raise aspirations and confidence in some of the most vulnerable members of society.

“Sometimes raw, always honest, the stories are filled with the emotion that comes from telling something held close to the chest and really being heard, maybe for the first time.”

Mary Anne McNair

Digital story telling

A digital story is a film around two minutes long that is created in a workshop environment. Stretch calls this the 'story circle.' First they will work on a script together, playing games to get the ideas flowing and supporting each other as they share emotional memories. This is a process that Stretch learnt from the Centre for Digital Story Telling in California. It is quite prescriptive and the ‘games’ played are similar to drama or therapy games. They found the dynamic of the group especially suits the women, who benefited from the ‘safe-space’ to express themselves and supported each other through the process.

Together the group writes and records the script as a priority, taking pictures to go with it. Sometimes they will work with personal objects and create 'mini-museums.' The process is very personal.  This gives the stories their unique and authentic voice, the content is totally lead by the participant.

The therapeutic process

Through the process the participants learn about digital media and improve their literacy and communication skills. The most important changes are the confidence and the capability to see a task through to the end, to try something new and possibly step out of their comfort zone. A ‘red-carpet’ afternoon is held at the end of the project where the finished films are shown on as big a screen as can be arranged. The education staff and some senior prison staff attend and sometimes other prisoners in the department at the time. We give out certificates and the participants are given a round of applause and a chance to enjoy other people watching their film. There is something very empowering and therapeutic about seeing your story up on the big screen and distancing yourself from it a little.

“Over the course of the project I saw the women change, become more confident and proud”

Education staff Bronzefield

'Stretch Digital'

Stretch has become very interested in the transformative power of telling your story and how powerful this can be and is currently preparing to launch ‘Stretch Digital’. This will be a digital agency that visits prisons delivering story telling projects and creative media projects using new technology in a creative way to fit in with the digital inclusion agenda. If you are interested in digital story telling and digital inclusion for prisoners in and out of custody please look at the Stretch website for lots of examples and get in contact with Carlotta here

You can also read more about how IT can be used for a range of rehabilitative purposes in PET’s report Through the gateway