“The Centre for rehabilitation by imagination” is an organisation that researches how art, literature and theatre can influence the process of re-socialization and rehabilitation and whether and how they change it. The organization carries out literary and theatre projects with marginalized groups with the aim of bringing an individual to some important facts about oneself by means of artistic expression (dramatic text, director’s mediation, and actors’ play): about their own abilities, endeavours, identity and place in society.
Within the monthly topic Prison education, we present their work through a conversation with Dubravka Radusinović, a member of the expert team of the Centre and the leader of the workshops.
Describe what your work looks like.
My colleague Marina Kovačević and I have been working together in Serbian prisons for years to develop and apply new models of rehabilitation and resocialization that combine art and psychotherapy. We are dealing with the dramatic process and various activities of psychosocial support in several different prisons in the country, both with the women and the men who are serving prison sentences. The latest women's prison project implemented under the auspices of the OSCE Mission to Serbia and the Indian Embassy gave the women who serve prison sentences an opportunity to engage in creative writing and social therapy activities, as well as yoga practice and meditation. The activities were focused on the development of social and emotional skills and the promotion of creativity. In addition to being focused on their meeting with themselves, the rounding up of the dramatic process through setting up and performing provides them with a unique way to meet with the community. We were guided by theoretical settings of theatre and psychotherapy, but we are primarily focused on our skills and experience to serve the needs of the people we work with. We have used the strong side of all the people in the team and seen how it all benefits the context in which we find ourselves, so that work on each project has its own specificities.
How would you describe the link between education and the activities mentioned?
Writing and passing through the dramatic process from the idea to performing the play allows an indirect development of some general skills as well as the so-called soft skills, primarily communication skills and teamwork. For example, it happens that people involved in the program do not want to cooperate, have a conflict, and then understand that they have a common goal and become good partners on stage. In addition, they develop many amateur art skills and I believe that some of them could work in an amateur theatre. If we view the rehabilitation and resocialization process at the level of integration into the social environment, with this experience it becomes clearer to them that they possess some skills and that they can apply them somewhere. We have observed that some have found themselves in writing, and some have continued to practice yoga and think about becoming instructors.
Describe briefly the course of activity.
First, through a series of workshops, we do creative writing, initially with a given topic. Later, perhaps due to other activities of psychosocial support, the main theme is related to personal content, i.e. personal stories. Through the framing of these personal contents, the material for the performance is crystallised, which is, at the end, a mosaic of different stories with one central story set on the stage. In the process of writing, one becomes aware of different messages, both individual and family and social, and the performance allows the process to be rounded up and thus the cycle completed and insights gained into complex responsibilities for complex life situations that can lead to violence and the commission of crime.
What changes did you notice at the end of this process?
We noticed different individual changes, primarily at the level of increased confidence in their own skills, overcoming their own barriers in understanding what they can (for example, I will not be able to talk in front of others). Some of them have changed their usual patterns of behaviour - they have become more involved in a group work, but also in everyday communication. Creativity was inspired in most of them - at one point, we had a hyper-production of content. In addition to personal changes, it is important to point out that the community changes come as well, because they get the opportunity to present themselves in a different way, and others can take them for what they are successful in, for example, for something good they have written, played. The process is complete only when the play is performed, when a space for community dialogue is opened. The play we are referring to in this article was performed in front of other convicts and there were women who had the opportunity to see the play for the first time, and there was a very interesting discussion afterwards.
What would you like to highlight as some special features of the work that help acquiring the skills and the dramatic process as a whole?
The work process is organised in such a way that they can experience trust in their abilities and power. They expected us to tell them what to do and how to do, but we gave them back their own sense of responsibility, and by doing so, we gave them back their power through reminding them that we are only the facilitators of the process and that it is up to them to make the final decisions about what is being shown and how. At the same time, they saw that we also learned a lot from them, that their experiences changed us as well and that, in general, their traumatic experiences can be useful to others - that we can show that there is another option, that one can come out of the cycle of violence in different ways.
What would you distinguish from your experience as guidelines to practitioners working or wanting to work in prisons?
The work is challenging but people who love working with vulnerable groups can find a lot. The work is not easy because we are not dealing with light stories; they are often about people who have been abandoned by the society and family members. However, in fact, the change is very powerful and motivating, in the sense that if they can change something, you can certainly do it in your life too. It is important to show our cooperative relationship, to respect their experience and them as people who have value. Still, it is important to have clearly defined boundaries, to put it very clearly which behaviour is not adequate. These are people who are not accustomed to investing in them and when they see that you are approaching them from the position of equality and empathy and that you are ready to give them something, you mostly get back gratitude. The practitioners are required to be adaptive in terms of content and working methods as the individuals are very clear on what they will not do. Depending on the theme of work, it is also important to bear in mind that secondary trauma may occur, so it is important to keep track of yourself and provide support, for example, through conversations with colleagues.