Exhibition unveiled inspired by women on probation

By Kris Jepson

An exhibition has been unveiled at an event at Newcastle's Discovery Museum showcasing artwork by women who have been through the criminal justice system.

The Free But Not Free project is run by the charity Changing Lives in partnership with the Tyne & Wear Archives Museum.

It rehabilitates women on probation by using heritage and art to encourage them to take positive steps and reclaim their identity.

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One woman who took part in the project is 'Alice'. She wanted to remain anonymous as she moves her life forward, but also wanted to talk about the positive impact the project has had on her life.

'Alice' was referred to the project when she was going through probation. Now she wants to become a mentor for other women in who have been through the criminal justice system to help give them a voice.

Every few months I would drink. I would stay sober for so long and then I’d end up drinking and I’d get into trouble. I was in a terrible mental state. My mental health was so low. I had anxiety. I couldn’t leave the house until probation, you know. It’s not a good thing that happened, but it is really. It’s pulled us out from a dark place, where I’ve been, you know. From not wanting to go out and then it’s given us something to aim for. It like takes you away from your situation, whether it be drawing or doing crafts and that’s you gone for a couple of hours. You just get lost lost in it and it’s just really good. It’s therapeutic.

'Alice'
Women on Probation event Credit: ITV News

The event, which took place at Newcastle's Discovery Museum, celebrated the work of the women and was attended by speakers including Mim Skinner, the author of Jailbirds, writer and campaigner for women’s issues around imprisonment; Kim McGuinness, The Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria; and Kate Chedgzoy, Professor of Renaissance Literature from Newcastle University.

We took a group of women to the archives here in Discovery and they talked about feelings of safety and feeling grounded. One of the women likened that to when the police enforced containment upon her and put her in a cell and she coined the phrase ‘if only they’d known they could have put us in an archive and not a cell’. Those women now visit galleries, archives. They’re visiting places they weren’t before because they want to feel that feeling again.

Dawn Harrison, Changing Lives
Beccy Owen Credit: ITV News

Artwork and crafts were displayed at the venue's Great Hall, alongside images of women who had been through the criminal justice system centuries ago.

A poem was read out, based on the testimony of the women from nine hubs across the Northumbria Police Force area, some of whom are still on probation.

Local singer-songwriter, Beccy Owen, also teamed up with the women to compose a new song based on their experiences and performed the piece at the event.

We were responding to a very simple, but very kind of deep and complex question really. What is free and what is not free? So we wrote all the answers up on a big piece of white paper and we started to craft what we felt were lyrics from that, what sounded already like they could be poems or lyrics and from a songwriting point of view I was kind of thinking, you know, where is the kind of key emotional aspects to this? It was really led by the women and I was very much a kind of conduit for them to try and express what that particular question meant to them. >

Beccy Owen, Singer-songwriter
Women on Probation event Credit: ITV News