03 August 2023
In this webinar, we are joined by Faye Claridge for a conversation about gardening for wellbeing in prisons.Watch the full event here
Artist Faye Claridge works at the intersection of prisons, ecology, archives, and heritage. She links collections with communities, helping people to understand themselves by understanding their ancestors. The focus of this webinar is ‘Plants, Prisons and Potential’ – Faye’s project with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and HMP Send.
We began with the screening of a short film, followed by a conversation with Hannah Stevens from the Prisoner Learning Alliance, and then questions from the audience.
Gardening at Ruhleben internment camp
During WWI, civilians at Ruhleben internment camp in Germany set up a horticultural society. Their aim was to improve the environment of the former racecourse and, as the war progressed, to grow food. The group wrote to the RHS in London for support and, for over 100 years, the RHS Lindley Library has kept the records of the Ruhleben gardeners and their remarkable story.
The letters and photographs show the enormous impact that gardening had on the mental health and wellbeing of the gardeners. Faye took some of these archive materials into HMP Send, a women’s prison in Surrey, to encourage learners engaging in horticulture courses to consider the role of gardening on their own wellbeing.
Gardening at HMP Send
Faye and participants at HMP Send used the archive materials to think about how gardening influenced them, and how they in turn could influence their environment. They worked together on a series of creative activities over several weeks.
This short film consists of a series of portraits, in which the women tell us how gardening at HMP Send makes them feel. They describe it as escapism, as a creative outlet, as a sense of achievement, independence, and responsibility.
My polytunnel is my little bit of freedom, within this tunnel I don’t feel like a prisoner. Participant at HMP Send
There’s never enough time. I never gardened before, no, I never knew nothing about it, but I’m learning every day, it’s constant learning. Participant at HMP Send
Faye also took photographs of the prison grounds, and the women drew over them, imagining how they could improve the space – just as the gardeners at Ruhleben did. These and other project outcomes are featured in an online exhibition and in an installation at RHS Wisley (just down the road from HMP Send). All of them – the film, the exhibition, and the installation – are publicly available. Reflecting on this, Faye said:
In all the projects that I do, the experience of the people in the room is the most important thing. But second is that we share something publicly so that this work gets talked about, so that people who are rendered invisible by their prison sentence or other societal inequalities actually get some visibility.
Co-production at HMP Hewell
Faye repeated the ‘Plants, Prisons and Potential’ project at HMP Hewell, a men’s prison near Redditch. The co-production method she uses (whereby participants take the lead) meant that, although the starting point was the same, the journey and final products were completely different to those of the women at HMP Send.
The men enjoyed recreating the archival photographs and sharing them with friends and family, just as the women did. But their main focus was ‘splatter meadow painting’ – first on paper, and then on the prison itself! In this short film, ‘Mind Meadows’, we hear from participants as they paint pillars to look like meadows.
My family know about that artworks and everything. On family day they’ll be coming this way. And they’ll be happy actually about they can see something what I’m doing. Participant at HMP Hewell
I think it’s helping me. I never used to speak about my problems and I’m going to talk about my problems when I get out, I think.
Participant at HMP Hewell
A gentle introduction to prison education
We know that people who struggle to engage in formal education can find a creative route into learning less intimidating. In her sessions, Faye tries to create a safe space in which participants feel able to speak about their insecurities – such as difficulties reading and writing. Support is made available for those who need it, and workarounds are found. But she doesn’t shy away from incorporating literacy into the sessions. There is always a clipboard, paper and pen, and participants have to use them. As well as an opportunity to be creative, Faye’s sessions are an opportunity to normalize reading and writing, and to build confidence.
And for some of participants, ‘Plants, Prisons and Potential’ seems to have been the gentle introduction to prison education that they were looking for. Learners have come to her, looking for additional educational opportunities, and, in the ‘Mind Meadows’ film, one gentleman tells us:
Since I’ve started doing this gardening course, I’ve considered doing this as a profession. I’ve been looking at going to university and studying botany. I’ve been looking into it because it has ignited a passion in me personally that I never knew I had. Participant at HMP Hewell
An excellent example of the potential of arts and horticulture to build confidence, and inspire further engagement in education.
We are very grateful to our speaker, Faye Claridge, and to the participants in the discussion.
If you have examples of good practice in this area, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023