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Interview with RECOOP volunteer - Becky Huggins

Becky Huggins is a theatre practitioner. She started to volunteer with RECOOP in Devon in 2011, developing workshops with older prisoners to help with life skills, collaboration and creative performance. Since then she has worked with RECOOP on a funded programme of drama workshops, which have led to entries for a Koestler award in theatre.

NLM: What attracted you to work with RECOOP?

BH: I’d worked in drama with youth and community groups and vulnerable adults, so I was interested in working with people who wouldn’t normally be involved in theatre. I hadn’t worked in prisons before, but I could see the potential. As I started to work in HMP Dartmoor I got to know people, and then I did a three-week project in HMP Channings Wood on a Christmas themed project. These were successful, and we put in a bid to fund a more ambitious programme across all three prisons in Devon.

NLM: What were you expectations of working in prison?

BH: I think I expected a lot more aggression, and at the same time a lot more apathy. I thought I’d have to work really hard to get people to take part, that I’d find a lot of resistance.

NLM: And how did you find it?

BH: Much better than I expected. There were some people who were a bit harder to engage with, but on the whole I found people were quite pleased and a bit surprised to be given the chance to do something creative. It took a bit of getting used to. For one exercise I asked people to get into pairs. One man said, only half-jokingly I think: “Aren’t you going to pick our pairs for us, Miss? This is a prison, you know!” At the end I received a letter from one of the men, thanking me. That was lovely.

NLM: How would you describe the needs of older prisoners?

BH: Social interaction is something many of the older men lack, with each other funnily enough and also with people outside the prison system. Older prisoners get institutionalised very quickly, and it takes a while for some to get used to knowing and saying what they want. They get out of the habit. Someone said to me: “I’m out soon. It’s been nice to practice speaking with someone normal!”

NLM: Did you need to adapt your work to meet the needs of older people in prison?

BH: Many people are not very able physically. So we did a lot of discussion, playing with ideas, and looking at scripts; also hand and head movements. Some have literacy problems – you’ll be surprised how many people forget their glasses!  I had to give them time to read things, and I’d ask a volunteer to read out loud. They chose the themes. Dartmoor wanted to do something to do with prison life, but Channings Wood wanted something quite different. They came up with an idea to do with a bowling club. You have to try to be consistent, because they come to expect things won’t happen or will go wrong. You have to show them that they can and it won’t.

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