Drove down to HMP Erlestoke in Devizes with the Applied Theatre Level 3 students to see Pimlico Opera's latest intervention, a production of Les Miserables cast mostly from prisoners in the jail.
Since 1991 the company have been taking a core team of professionals into prisons to collaborate in the creation of full scale productions. The thinking is that this kind of teamwork, discipline and camaraderie offers the inmates a chance to experience, albeit temporarily, a rewarding communal experience, culminating in the affirmation that successful production always brings to those who participate in it.
The work isn't cheap. This current production cost £180,000, all raised by private donations, mostly from wealthy patrons, earlier in the week Camila Parker Bowles came to the show. Whilst there's no disputing the value this kind of initiative brings to the relatively small number of men involved it did make me wonder how similar programmes could be publicly funded and rolled out. Most of the evidence suggests that prisoners who engage in arts based projects are less likely to re offend and from a purely economic point of view it seems clear that money invested in educational programmes in prisons pays real dividends. I couldn't help but wonder how many literacy classes the money spent on this show could have funded - a more private, but perhaps less glamerous investment? To their credit Pimlico Opera aren't just an annual circus and work hard to find employment within the theatre industry for prisoners on their release.
The problem is that many of us baulk at the idea of investing anything in those who have committed crime. The counter argument suggests that the money should go on victim support or crime prevention in the first place. Putting on a play, may help those involved to imagine themselves as part of a community, perhaps for the first time in their lives, but it doesn't seem in anyway to be an act of repentance.
Indeed the high production values of the work and the fact that prisoners are given time and space in which to perform only seems to underline a sense of privilege.
In the end I guess we have to find a way to understand that rehabilitation isn't an affront to those who have suffered as a result of crime and that money spent on offering opportunities for prisoners to realign their behaviour can, providing it's effective, ultimately improve the quality of life for all of us.