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March 11, 2007 || 11:02 pm
Pimlico Opera in HMP Wandsworth

I went last week to see the production of Les Miserables in Wandsworth Prison, by Pimlico Opera. It was a hugely moving experience, as twenty convicts and remand prisoners performed together with astonishing confidence and energy, not to mention real skill in many cases. While the singing may have been patchy here and there, for a six-week rehearsal period it was an extraordinary achievement. Beyond criticism, I was brought to tears.

The production held real power, with the subject matter of a hunted ex-prisoner transforming himself and proving more virtuous than most of the so-called 'authorities' resonating clearly enough without needing to be hammered home. The staging was direct, clear, authoritative and certainly not amateur. It was humbling to see the commitment and ability to learn that was demonstrated by the prisoners, who had to return to their cells after the adrenaline of the performance without so much as a celebratory drink. A worse or more depressing come-down I couldn't imagine, as we exited the prison and stared up at the barred, lit windows and into tall atria of stacked gangways and cells.

Two of the performers mentioned, in their brief biographies, that they had played football for the youth teams of high-ranking clubs. Several claimed to have enjoyed maths at school; one had been on remand for 190 days - ruining a life without even having been convicted. And most saddening of all is that, despite their evident capacity for positive work, when each of them leaves their prison record will probably mean that they fail to be even considered for a job as a stage hand or usher, let alone acting on stage. Wandsworth prison - a collection of terrifying Victorian buildings full of the symbolism of punishment - would have been recognisable to Victor Hugo and it is astonishing that for all our advances, the ways we deal with people who break laws is so medieval.

In Alabama I occasionally drove three convicted killers back from their day-release jobs with us to their prison ranch. After years of brutalising imprisonment - which they would never discuss with me - it is astonishing that they had managed not only to keep any humanity, but to be some of the gentlest, kindest people I have ever met. I'm not sure that I would manage to make myself that good after years inside; and I have no mental illness, addictions or major grudges in my worldview. While I would never claim that those who pose a danger to others should be allowed to roam free, surely there has to be a better way - the current system disgraces us all.



This is not a comment on this post per se, but rather a comment that I was surprised to see no - or very few - comments on your blog.

You have a lot of interesting stuff here.

As you said, your friends need to become more web-literate!

By Blogger Nairobi Paul, at 11:46 am  

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