The original Elizabeth Fry Refuge, in London was re-opened and re-governed by the inmates at the current Elizabeth Fry Refuge in Reading. I spent two weeks in the prison helping the inmates create a role reversal performance piece for the audience. Half the façade of the building was renovated ‘Halfway House’
195 Mare St. Refuge
Open for one evening only by Ella Medley-Whitfield
and the women of the Elizabeth Fry Hostel
Mid-afternoon in a greasy Hackney café, and five or six women sit around a table, hungrily awaiting fried breakfasts and chips. The women range in age, appearance and temperament, but there is one thing that binds them: all of them have recently been released from prison.
“When you go into prison everything is taken away from you,” explains Sarah over steaming plate of lasagne. “Even down to what your children wear. It takes a very long time to get used to that feeling of not having any control.” At forty, she’s the eldest of the group, her long grey hair tied back from smiling eyes that have not properly seen the outside world, or her children, for over a decade. Sarah says it takes at least a year to acclimatise inside – to let go and let the system take control. Recently she’s be awarded ROTL (Release On Temporary Licence), which means that four days a month she stays in a half-way house in Reading called the Elizabeth Fry Hostel, where she is allowed a little more freedom. In this way, she is slowly rehabilitated into a society that, many years ago, excluded her.
Two hundred years ago, women like Sarah would have been shunned for life, kept in appalling conditions for ‘crimes’ like littering and disobedience, some of them locked up without trial. It was only when Elizabeth Fry, a female pioneer familiar to all of us from the back of the five-pound note, began to campaign for fairer treatment in the nineteenth century, that these conditions began to improve.
Today, it is one of Fry’s greatest achievements that the residents of the modern-day hostel are here to visit – the now derelict Refuge for Women on Mare Street. A huge, barren construction of broken floorboards and peeling wallpaper, this neglected monument of hope is seeing the return of a new generation of women prisoners. Under the guidance of local artist Ella Medley-Whitfield, modern-day female convicts are hard at work conceiving of an art project that will revive the broken remains of the refuge.
“We are all governed by rules,” Ella explains, “but for some, every waking moment, every move, is dictated by others. This project allows women who have experienced that extreme to recreate elements of it for the rest of us – perhaps shedding light on the constraints of our own lives in the process.” Ella’s work habitually concentrates on human systems, both psychological and societal. Often, this involves undergoing lengthy research periods – for this project she has spent days working with the residents of the Elizabeth Fry hostel in Reading, and weeks studying the tumbledown remains of the derelict refuge in Hackney that would have once been their home.
On 7th April she invites us all to this monumental listed building to experience the culmination of a groundbreaking project. Bridging the divide between the past and the present, the liberated and the imprisoned, the imagined and reality, Ella and the women of the Elizabeth Fry hostel are offering a unique opportunity to see life through the eyes of stranger – or perhaps our own lives, reflected in the faces of those who have lived behind bars.
The residents and myself renovated half of the façade and garden of 195 mare Street, London for the night of the pereformance. The audience qued on the old side of the front garden (right) and left on the reformed side (left). An unblossomed apple tree was placed in the middle of thereformed side of the garden.
Inmate photographed during the performance
These shirts were worn by the inmates for the performance and the renovation work of ‘Halfway House’. The emblems stitched onto the back were designed by the women and visually describe what the institution means to them (tobacco, tea and keys). Each shirt is sprayed with the perfume worn by each of the women.
series of photographs taken by the inmates of their window sills at Elizabeth Fry Refuge
created by the inmate for the role reversal performance
Inspired by an inmates description of how they are searched before and after entering prison