Women in prison

Wednesday, October 23, 1991 - 10:00

Inside Out
By Sowaddayawant Women's Theatre Company and Patricia Cornelius
Directed by Lisa Dombroski
At the Anthill Theatre, South Melbourne, until October 27.
Reviewed by Bronwen Beechey

Sowaddayawant Women's Theatre Company began drama workshops in the women's division of Pentridge prison in 1987. The positive response and a grant from a charitable foundation enabled Sowaddayawant to conduct further drama and writing workshops in Pentridge and later at Fairlea and Tarrengower women's prisons.

The script of Inside Out was developed from these workshops and is based on the experiences of the women who participated.

The play is a devastating critique of the prison system. It also portrays women prisoners as real, complex characters, as opposed to the stereotypes of TV shows such as Prisoner.

Kazza, played by Lynne McGranger, is a long-term prisoner who in the past has been an organiser and "stirrer, prepared to stand up for her rights and her fellow prisoners. However, she is becoming disillusioned with her role as leader and the breakdown of solidarity caused by the drug culture among the younger prisoners. Her cell mate Jude is a single mother imprisoned for social security fraud, who discovers that her ex-husband is using her absence to gain access to her children and sexually abuse her daughters.

Other prisoners include Bernie, a violent and self-destructive heroin addict, Janine, a former street kid to whom prison is the nearest thing to a home she's ever had, Virginia, a naive newcomer, and Angie, a woman of non-Anglo descent who is constantly harassed by the screws.

One of the main themes is the role of drugs in prison. The women in the play are constantly subjected to degrading strip searches and urine tests to detect drug use. At the same time, drugs are being sold to them by screws — often the same ones who conduct the searches.

Tracey Oliver (who plays Virginia) told Green Left that several prison officers she spoke to while researching the script openly stated that they preferred to have the prisoners "smacked out" — it keeps them quiet. There is an interesting parallel between the use of drugs to keep "deviant" women in prison docile and the widespread prescription of tranquillisers to women frustrated or depressed by their role as "good" wives and mothers.

Although it pulls no punches in depicting the brutality of prison life with its boredom, petty regulations and outbursts of violence and self-mutilation, Inside Out contains plenty of humour directed by the women at the hypocrisy of the prison authorities and also emphasises the warmth and affection between the characters. The play is enlivened by some lovely music, written by Kerry Gilmartin. The performances are all excellent.

From GLW issue 32