Sara’s Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travel fellowship blog

In February we were delighted to announce that our Artistic Director Sara Lee had been awarded a prestigious travel fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT). The travel fellowship was designed to allow people from all over the UK from a diverse range of backgrounds and interests to travel aboard to ‘gain fresh perspectives on their own field of interest and return with enhanced expertise, able to be more effective at work and in their contribution to the community.’

Sara started her travels in June. Along the way she will be writing blog posts for our facebook page (like our page to keep up to date!). We’re also collecting them up on this page.

Bon voyage Sara!

12th June 2015 – London

This time next week I will not be wearing any of the things above.

Phase 1 of my Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship starts on Sunday when I will be travelling to San Francisco for 2 weeks to speak at an Arts in Corrections conference, meet a representative from the Governor of California’s office, discuss funding of the arts in corrections with the California Arts Council and visit San Quentin prison. There are likely to be many more highlights which won’t become apparent until I get there but all will be revealed via our Facebook page for those who wish to keep up with my travels.

15th June 2015 – Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean

Conversations on a plane:

Passenger 1 lived very close to HMP Kingston in Portsmouth and when it shut, he knocked on the front gate and asked to look round it. He was informed that 2 weeks later, there was going to be an ‘open day’ to get the views of local people as to what they thought should happen to it. He felt disappointed that despite it being in the middle of his community, he had never really given much thought to the people inside it and what it might have been like to live there.

Passenger 2 lived in Peterborough as the prison was being built and told me there was a good deal of opposition from residents who, she felt, only seemed concerned whether people might escape. She tried to find out whether or not the bigger picture was important to them, but couldn’t. The lady was a retired teacher and cited an occasion where she knew she had ‘made a difference’. The school she taught at received a girl who had been expelled from another and they really clicked. The girl went on to study medicine and subsequently wrote to say that the lady’s teaching had had a huge impact on her life. As we left the plane, she said, ‘please keep up the wonderful work, learning of any kind is vital for everyone, especially those whom others can’t teach’.

17th June 2015 – San Francisco

About 100 people attended the pre-conference training day, which was an opportunity for artists who are new to the field to learn from experienced practitioners across the whole spectrum of the arts. There were some really impressive presentations given by some of the major players in Arts and Corrections in the US and two things that were evident throughout the day were positivity and optimism. As in the UK, there are people who have been doing the work for decades, still inspired and still inspirational, yet it felt the ‘new generation’ was coming through, which was acknowledged and welcomed by the speakers. The difference between the individual States was apparent when hearing people talk; California was the envy of many as it has good, solid support right from the top which many others clearly don’t. It was the ‘many others clearly don’t’ that resonated more with our experiences in the UK.

There was an exercise we all had to do which brought home a big difference in our prison systems. We were asked to join groups if we worked with young people/adults/juveniles/lifers and find 2 or 3 words which described our experiences working with that particular group. When the word ‘lifers’ was mentioned, someone asked for clarification and without so much as a pause, the facilitator said, ‘those who will die in jail’. The group of practitioners who worked with these folks was the largest yet the words used to describe working with them were the most optimistic.

Today’s picture is part of an exhibition at the conference. I met Russell (the artist) who since his release has been working at the fabulous Mural Arts Programme in Philadelphia. A visit to meet them and find out more has been arranged for September…

18th June 2015 – San Francisco

Day 1 of the conference proper today and what a day. There was a brilliant array of presenters, covering a wide variety of topics, one of the most poignant being Carol, the mum of a man serving 25 years who has been in prison since he was 18. He’s now about half way through his sentence and she was speaking about how music and writing has become his main focus since being inside. As she was talking, she showed us a series of photos of them together at various arts events in the prison and it proved another stark reminder that imprisonment reaches so much further than the individual who gets convicted. She was full of praise for the Arts in Corrections programme as it had helped her son find a positive way through his sentence and additionally had helped them re-find their relationship. Other speakers included researchers, administrators (those who manage the artists going in), funders, government people, teaching artists and former prisoners.

There was a mock-up of a cell at the conference today. I’ve seen the brilliant one Rideout produced in UK but once again, as a reminder that our systems are quite different, this one contained a cage and chains.
Another impressive presenter was the ED and founder of a fantastic organisation based in New York called Rehabilitation through the Arts which uses the arts as a tool for transformation and change. They work in 5 prisons across the state and support people on release after some very long sentences. Another addition to my ever growing list of people to meet when I’m on the east coast in September.

I found out today that I’m unable to spend any longer than a day in New Folsom prison next week so some quick work is being undertaken to see if they can extend my clearance for San Quentin, to enable me to go in there for a couple of days instead. It has an extensive arts programme so it’d be good to see more, just depends on whether some administrative magic can happen.

There is still a good deal of understanding of language to overcome, the difference between state and federal, who is sent where and why and for how long, who funds who and via who and how people get in to actually do the work. However I was told today that it takes a whole year to get your ‘badge’ (clearance) in the federal system, upon hearing which I resolved never to moan again.

Today’s photo – the grounds of San Francisco University.

20th June – San Francisco

Via sessions covering evaluation, restorative justice and State perspectives on arts and justice, about 70 of us ended the conference at San Quentin prison this afternoon. A group of 25 men had prepared readings, performance pieces and Shakespeare scenes to perform to us. The quality was quite extraordinary; the group we met were passionate about the arts but it could have been happening anywhere in UK, meaning the work was high quality and all prison chapels seem to look the same.

It was when we went for the ‘tour’ that we really got a sense we were somewhere completely different. As we walked round, we saw the Chow Hall, complete with some huge and quite incredible murals, 12 feet high and about 100 feet long, painted in the 1950s by a man named Santos. He’d won a prison competition to paint the hall and worked most nights for 2 years in order to complete it. At one end of the hall was the servery, AKA two small openings in one of the walls, each about a foot high and 3 feet wide where only the server’s hands could be seen. A deliberate ploy ‘to stop people seeing their mates coming and giving them extra potatoes’, we were told. San Quentin holds 4000 men, 700 of whom are on death row. We walked past the place where the latter group go on exercise; the high corrugated walls, barbed wire and battered looking roof letting in no light at all. No-one can see in, no-one can see out. We then spent half an hour in the art room with some of the art group talking about all sorts of things but not much about painting. It was more about families, sport and whether I came from Australia, which is the 3rd time I’ve been asked this week.

One of the men told me he’d served 20 years so far and had no idea when he was likely to get out. It’s something they don’t get told apparently. People were interested to know how it compared to UK. Four words are enough here, the first two are, ‘it doesn’t’, and the second two, ‘thank goodness’.

Next week’s plans are still up in the air. It seems that prison logistics are the same the world over, no matter how much planning and preparation you do, how many e mails you write and how many people you contact, it doesn’t mean things will work as you hoped. Plans for 2 extra visits to San Quentin are not looking likely to come off and the trip to New Folsom, due to be 3 days at outset is still only 1. Still, it’ll give me chance to write up all my notes from the conference and meet up with a couple of people to talk some more. President Obama has just left the city, the Warriors NBA champions party is about to begin and I will be spending Saturday in Golden Gate Park. Ladies and gentlemen, the weekend is about to begin, let the dancing commence.

21st June 2015 – San Francisco

The weekend is drawing to a close and as well as writing up a huge number of pages of notes from last week’s conference, there was time to go walking and see some of the city.

I had an email from a fellow Fellow earlier today, outlining some of his US experiences as he travelled round. It was unsurprising to see transport crop up. It would be safe to say that outside cities, US doesn’t actually have any public transport or if it does, it doesn’t link any of the places you need linked!

22nd June 2015 – San Francisco

Today is my final day in SF before moving on to Sacramento. All my conference notes are now complete (many more questions than answers contained within) and almost all the emails I said I’d send to people to begin the conversations about ‘what happens next’, I have now done. There have been some pretty exciting replies I must say, one particular opportunity which might be an interesting addition to our 21st anniversary year.

So today, I arranged to see a wonderful musician called Naima Shahloub who I met at the conference last week. Naima is a songstress who works with the women in San Francisco County Jail and is one of these extraordinary people you don’t come across very often. I wanted to interview her as part of my Fellowship and found myself rushing back to where I am staying just to make sure I hadn’t accidentally deleted everything she had said on the recording I made.

Naima has a real passion for what she does, and managed to crowdfund for her first album which she got permission to record inside the jail a couple of months back, the Sheriff allowing the women to take part as well. Amongst many other things, we spoke of the power the press can have in relation to our work and uniquely, her experience had only been positive. It reminded me that all last week I kept wondering when the press might be mentioned, somehow expecting conversations to be as negative and coverage to be as ‘unforgiving’ as it so often is in UK. But no. It would appear the press are supportive of the work. The fact they weren’t even mentioned last week should have told me that I suppose, but it didn’t.

25th June – Sacramento


After a peaceful and uneventful day of travelling, I arrived at California State Prison, Sacramento, to meet some of the tutors and sit in on a few of the creative arts sessions. It’s a sprawling place, so much so you can get a lift from the initial check in to wherever you are heading. There are over 3000 men held there, in 3 different blocks, all of which are separate from each other. Social visitors enter via an underground walkway. The prison holds a large number of lifers, I have no idea on length of sentences but when speaking to prisoners during the sessions, it would appear many of them are in for an extremely long time.

Once again there was a lot that was familiar – quiet and focussed groups, respectful and humorous conversations – but just as I got lulled into a, ‘this is something I know’ kind of vibe, it all changed. I wasn’t expecting it and it came just after something else I’ve not experienced; a Native American flute teacher giving a demonstration on a dual chamber flute to a small group of men who reside in the mental health unit.

After leaving the demonstration, I walked into a holding area where a number of prisoners were shackled (feet and hands), waiting for something, I don’t know what. I was then led to a classroom where I saw 5 or 6 cages, barely tall enough to stand in or wide enough to sit in. And in each cage was a man. They were being taught something or other, whilst in cages, the teacher sitting on a chair on what was left of the floor space in the room. The shackles were off but I heard that the arms are left tied until they get into the cages. It’s hard to know what to do, do you smile, do you walk away, or what? I was completely taken aback and not given much time to think as I was en route to another class where I listened to a man who has been learning guitar for about 5 years give a 40 minute classical recital to an audience of 20 or so staff and prisoners. I hadn’t imagined seeing any of these things and one of them I never want to see again. The other was joyous.

I went straight from the prison to the Governor of California’s office, to meet one of his deputies, to find out more about why they believe the arts to be a powerful tool to support rehabilitation. Whilst there are several similarities in our systems i.e. a strong focus on the final 12 months of someone’s sentence with a smooth transition to the outside as a priority and a lot of people at the start of long sentences with not that much to do, the one big difference is that the Governor of California and his staff appear to value the arts as a means of learning and as a tool to open up other opportunities. They back this up with funding. Although I was told, ‘it’s only a very small amount of money’, if someone was to give me the equivalent of a couple of million dollars to spend on the arts over 12 months in UK (as a comparison, there are 34 prisons in CA), I’d say thank you and spend it very wisely on establishing and embedding arts programmes into every prison that would open its gates.

26th June – Sacramento


Despite it being the final day of the first phase of my travels and officially a day of rest (AKA writing up 3 hours’ worth of interview notes), I still managed to stumble across a prison link, tenuous maybe, but a link nonetheless. In between transcribing lengthy conversations, I decided to take a trip to the California State Railroad Museum, which had been recommended to me by several people. It told the tale of how the first railroad was built across the US, complete with films, the actual trains from the time and brilliant guides telling you the story of who designed it, how the Irish (unsuccessfully) and the Chinese (successfully) got it all built and up and running and how they managed it. After the guided tour we were left to explore some of the old carriages and engines, everything preserved as it had been back in the day. I ended up in the mail coach (used as a Post Office between Chicago and Washington) for a good 20 minutes, having a lengthy conversation with two of the elderly volunteer guides about the Great Train Robbery. They knew a bit about it but now they know a bit more, including how Buster Edwards had been a flower seller at Waterloo and how Ronnie Biggs had escaped from Wandsworth prison after scaling a wall with a rope and didn’t find himself back in prison until 35 years later. This added to their already high spirits as they had met someone earlier whose relative had the job of hanging out the mail bags ready for the trains to pick up. They told me how much they loved their job, that there were about 650 volunteers and how last year had been quite a poor year for numbers, and that they’d had to do a big recruitment drive; ‘you see my dear, we’re all quite old and quite a few of our colleagues, well, you know, weren’t able to come back to work, if you understand me’.

So, the first part of the Fellowship is almost over and I feel really pleased that I have opted to split the trip. Not least because lots has happened which I need to learn more about, but there have been particular things I’ve seen which have been shocking and exhausting. To go straight on to the East coast would leave me no time to think. There is masses to be happy about, however a break before the next chapter will let it all settle, allow me to make contacts with some of the folks I met at the conference who want to meet up again on the East coast and give me another trip to look forward to. Roll on September!

PART TWO of Sara’s adventures is here.

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