Imagine If

Bird on the Wing

Bird on the Wing

“It shows what you can achieve with a bit of confidence and hard work. I have a brighter outlook for my future upon release.”

— Participant, HMP Wealstun

Bird on the Wing is imagine if’s flagship intervention for prisoners due for release, which uses evidence led theatre techniques to address several risk factors for criminal behaviour, including interpersonal skills, communication skills, employability and personal narratives.

Delivered by a professional theatre company, Bird on the Wing is an intervention which gets prisoners ready for release and the working world. Participation in drama develops self-esteem, pro-social attitudes and motivation for work. Prisoners work with imagine if to devise a short performance after an intensive programme of theatre and employability skills workshops. Bird on the Wing showcases the skills prisoners have developed directly to local and national employers, recruitment agencies and support services. imagine if also offers long-term support for Bird on the Wing Graduates to engage with the arts and work towards employment goals upon release.

“How else do you feel the course may have benefited you?” “By making me feel like a human again and not just a number.” – Prisoner, HMP Wealstun


Our Approach

imagine if’s
practitioners are trained theatre professionals with extensive experience in delivering theatre-based provision in community settings, specialising in work with hard to reach communities. We combine our knowledge of the criminal justice system, associated services (i.e. housing services, Jobcentre Plus and third sector support organisations) and experience of working with employability skills through drama.



Agents of Change


Bird on the Wing addresses pro-criminal attitudes by supporting prisoners to alter self-perceptions and develop a new narrative identity through envisioning a new, appealing and conventional replacement self. The program also works with prisoners to build social capital through access to agents for change – offering exposure and reaction to ‘hooks for change’ or turning points.

imagine if offers unique provision within the theatre prison field by consciously taking the role of ‘Change Agents’ (McCullock & McNeill, 2008) for all Bird on the Wing participants. Our approach is based on building prisoners’ social skills in custody and developing their social capital upon re-entering the community. A key element of this is ensuring that prisoners have an independent, reliable and trustworthy pro-social network immediately available to them on leaving prison, supporting real-world translation of the milestones achieved during the in-prison programme. Ongoing developments to the intervention has led to the development of a Graduates Programme to establish strong pro-social networks for all participants for improved access to services, support and employment opportunities.


HMP Leeds – prisoner engaging with a third-sector organisation after the performance


Bird on the Wing is evidence led and evidence based. The aims and objectives for the programme are informed by desistance literature, with particular focus on understanding and addressing criminogenic needs that have been identified as strong risk factors for recidivism. This Risk-Need-Responsibility Model for Offender Assessment and Rehabilitation (Andrews & Bonta, 2007) identifies seven key risk factors for criminal behaviour, provides examples of indicators for these risk factors, and suggests intervention goals to address these risks. Bird on the Wing addresses four of these risk factors: lower rates of reconviction, an increase in pro-social attitudes, improved employability skills and higher rates of employment.


Pilot Outcomes


In 2017 Bird on the Wing was initially piloted in HMP Leeds, HMP Wealstun and HMP Doncaster, after rigorous testing by people with convictions in the community. Across these prisons, 41 men completed the 3-week full time intervention.



Evaluation of the pilot study included informal feedback from participants about their experiences of the programme, as well as an assessment of mental well-being using the validated Warwick- Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale (WEMWBS, Clarke et al, 2011).

The pilot interventions were well received with over 90% of prisoners agreeing that the Bird on the Wing has helped them to improve their communication skills, ability to work as a team, their confidence and creativity.




imagine if are currently working with a widely published researcher from the University of Leeds, Clare Harley, and the Royal Statistical Society’s Paul Kiff, to design comprehensive, academically viable research on the outcomes of Bird on the Wing.

The research is based on the following hypotheses: lower rates of reconviction, an increase in pro-social attitudes, improved employability skills, higher rates of employment.

Clare and Paul are assisting in identifying where our work is positioned within wider research on how we can measure the impact of the programme on individuals, alongside society as a whole. They are also advising on the practical implementation into our working practices, for example in the staffing required for the requisite data collection and analysis. The Bird on the Wing Graduate Programme allows us to monitor and track participants post-release, enabling an assessment of the direct correlation of our work with reducing re-offending outcomes using control group data from the Ministry of Justice’s Data Lab. Long-term contact with our past participants also aids in assessing the impact of our work in society and the costs we are saving the economy with regards to re-offending. We hope to publish our findings through an industry journal and the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance Evidence Library.

“The course is confidence building by giving them new experiences and positive reinforcement. Clearly has had time and dedication from participants. It is also a good opportunity for organisations (such as police) to break down barriers with offenders.” Celeste Armitage, Officer of Police and Crime Commissioner West Yorkshire


Graduate Stories


David’s Journey

When we met David in HMP Leeds he struggled to make eye contact with anyone. By the end of the intervention he performed in front of around 20 employers and prison staff. He also presented us with some poetry he had written in his own time in his cell, now framed in the imagine if office. During the intervention we also found that although David had years of working experience, he had lost hope of finding employment upon release.We helped him to practise disclosing, in his own words, the “worst mistake of his life” in interviews. Four weeks after release he secured a full time job at Waitrose, moving on to a role with more responsibility soon after. David also works with imagine if in prisons as a motivational speaker, meeting the new Bird on the Wing participants, presenting his poetry and encouraging them to persevere.


Carl’s Journey

Since his release, we have been working on Carl’s artistic journey and employment progression. He has performed to over 100 people, including to Secretary of State, David Gauke, and represented imagine if at national events.

Developing creative skills for self-expression and building pro-social as opposed to pro-criminal networks is a vital part of our work and is proven to contribute towards reducing reoffending. We are working with Carl to develop his stand-up comedy routine alongside support with job applications.

“In prison, the opportunity came up to be part of a scheme to help rehabilitate prisoners through theatrical expression and spoken word. Everything in prison is bottled up and to have the chance to release your feelings creatively in a safe environment was wonderful. I did do all sorts of courses when I was in prison and they were fine but as soon as you are released you are left a bit to your own devices. That wasn’t the case with imagine if, they followed up and got in touch with my probation officer after I was released. Since I was released imagine if has been a stable presence in my life which has helped me get ready for work again. I can’t rate them enough” Carl, 2017

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