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Time for Dad

September 5, 2017 | Posted in: literacy, prison, schools, young people

‘Which are the good ones?’ Len gingerly picks through the picture books I’ve placed in front of him. The rest of the group sense a shortcut and stop sifting their own book piles.
‘You just need to look through them. Choose one you like.’ I keep my voice light. I want them to see this as fun, not a chore. To me, choosing a picture book means five or ten minutes max. The group act as if it’s going to take them hours. They fan out the slim books, unsure how to begin.
‘Why don’t you just tell us which are best? That would make it quicker.’ Marco gives me his just-trying-to-help face.
‘You have to decide for yourself.’
They look at me. In truth, they’re not trying to skive, they just want a clear answer. Because there has to be answer. There has to be a ‘best book’.
‘Listen,’ I pick a book from the top of the pile near Len and sit on the floor. The group remain on their chairs, watching me curiously.

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I read Fizz the Fire Engine out loud to this group of addicts, thieves, fraudsters, drug dealers, and villains. I read it the way I read it to my son when he was barely walking, and this was his favourite book. It’s a quick story, even with all the sound effects, and as I’m reading I’m aware (because you need to be aware of your audience) of their nervous looks, their smirks and grins at my expense but also that they GOT the story, that they GOT the point of enjoying yourself, of throwing yourself into something as small and as vital as story for your child. Reading with your children isn’t a chore, it’s a gift.

Safeground’s Fathers Inside is a parenting course for men in prison. We cover parental rights, choices, dealing with your children’s schoolwork – everything, which includes reading with your kids. The five-week course is intensive and challenging, made doubly so by the fact that we use drama in every session. The men create scenarios where they tell the truth, where they role-play stories because that’s how we learn. It asks an awful lot of them in a place where honesty is rarely rewarded. They get stick for coming to courses such as this. It’s not a parent-friendly environment. Parenting? What you need that for? What’s wrong with you?
The group appreciate the difference space Fathers Inside gives them.
‘We can leave all that shit on the wing,’ they say, despite my often having to cajole them back from discussing ‘wing shit’.
‘Here we can be ourselves. We’re all dads.’ Marco looks around the room. ‘That’s what we have in common. Before this I would have walked on by if he (he nods at Len) were getting trouble. Now I’ve got his back.’ He grins ‘We’d even help you, Davo.’
In the class they can see themselves and each other as fathers and individuals rather than other men caught in the same trap. Part of the value of the course is to remind the men of that other identity, help them strengthen it as only then will they be able to resist the offender label, and all its harmful negativity, which is the bedrock of prison life.

The big carrot for the course is a family day where they put on a performance for their families. There is much excitement that they will get five hours with their families, twice as long as a normal visit. This is also a source of stress. Knowing that your family and your relationship with them will be on view: this can unravel some of the stories the men tell about themselves. One man, right from the start, tells us just what a fabulous dad he is, how much he loves his kids, how much he does for them but as we get closer to the performance he has to acknowledge that nobody is coming to see him. To his credit he carries on playing his part so the performance can continue. Len, who has a three-month-old son, tells me that he would also like to contact his children from a previous relationship.

The men’s wives and partners rarely work. This can appear conservative, for all their wild drug tales the men want to keep traditional male and female roles. And yet they have never, not a single one, raised a hand to their children. Partly this is because so much of the childcare is left to their partners; they prefer to be the one who brings fun and toys. It is also because so many remember being beaten by their fathers (and mothers). Traditional, and yet they can confound my expectations. When one man said he would never read to his children as that was ‘a woman’s job’, the group freeze him out.

The group discuss how hard it is to keep family contact going. ‘Sometimes you just don’t want to see them, you know.’
‘Gotta do your own time’ – nods Zen-Bobby who misses one session a week to attend meditation. This helps with his temper though Zen-Bobby is adamant that he has no problem dealing with prison. ‘Sleep your way through. 23hr bang-up? Lovely. You go into a kind of trance. When they let you out of the cell properly a whole week might have gone by.’
For these men it is one thing to do your time. Most accept this. It is something that must be got through, slept through, something to drug yourself through, fight and paranoia yourself through. Being conscious of your family on the outside, of being helpless to help them, of not being the provider: that is hard. Too hard for many. Fathers Inside offers different ways in which they can maintain relationships.

Back to the books. ‘This is a bit near.’ Marco holds up When Dad was Away (Liz Weir/Karin Littlewood). Len has got Visiting Day (Jacqueline Woodson/James E Ransome).

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Both books are about families who have a father in prison
‘Fuck. I never knew there were books like this.’
Freddie takes the book. Freddie copies out the whole book and adds drawings of his own for his own children. One of the drug dealers reveals a life long love of Dr Seuss. We show them books that help dyslexics, books that deal with all kinds of issues such as loss, moving house, worries etc.

‘I never realised books were more than stories. That when I read to my kids we’re also learning about each other,’ says John with genuine wonder.

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John loves Dinkin Dings (Guy Bass). ‘Can I borrow it? ‘John is a habitual thief: sellatape, pens, paper vanish when he’s in the room. I never see him do it. But if I ask for items to be returned he will unashamedly bring them back. ‘Didn’t think they were important.’
Dinkin Dings will not come back but I want to believe he will read it down the phone to his son. The phones, the over-expensive, non-private phones where everyone’s family drama is broadcast down the wing.

On the day of the performance the group are excited. It’s the big day and they are also terrified.
‘You have no idea how scary this is for us.’
It goes well. Each family get a gift bag with books from Give A Book, a charity that supports many book-gifting projects inside and outside prison

That’s a long time they say with both apprehension and satisfaction. ‘I don’t think I spent that long with my kids before.’ If you’re out working or dealing it tends to take you away from your families. On the day the families love the performance, and mingle. They sit in couples, hands in hand (forbidden on usual visits) baby asleep on a blanket.

A long visit is something that they have all looked forward to but it’s also a long time to sit with people who inhabit a different world. Families also have long journeys. One family arrive hours early because of the trains. Others have to start back with tired and hungry children.

At the end only two of our group are still sitting with their families.
I’m enjoying watching Len and Marco with their babies. Len will be back on building sites soon, minding his temper. He seems happy and when his girlfriend goes to get a cup of tea, he is looking after his three-month-old baby. The baby isn’t immediately impressed and keeps looking around for his mother. I watch Len to see if he will wait for his girlfriend to return. The baby is grizzling now but Len’s still smiling as he reaches into the book bag and pulls out a book. His baby son looks curious before resuming his grizzling, twisting round in the direction his mother took. Len picks up his son, places him on his knee, balances the book and begins to read.

* All names have been changed

“Crazy but Brilliant-Crazy” – Penned Up festival at HMP Erlestoke

June 7, 2017 | Posted in: prison

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Mr Gee is in my car. Maggie’s got the Addiction Team, and I’m dealing science fiction futures with Adam Roberts, though I’m not sure in which room, and still find it unbelievable that our event is full. Who would have thought there would be so many sci-fi fans banged up at HMP Erlestoke? Through the prison gates, and I draw keys. It’s Penned Up’s second week, and the staff smile and wave me through. They’re smiling but somewhere Security is puzzling over tomorrow’s “intent to visit”. Geese Theatre is sending a man with ‘a suitcase of masks and a ball’. Someone is bound to ask me what kind of ball.

Tomorrow will be a bit of a panic anyhow, as we are running four events: three simultaneously. Two of these are with rock solid performers, Ilya (graphic novels) and Dreda Say Michell (crime novels) – both of whom were part of our very first Penned Up at HMP Lewes in 2015, so they know what to expect. But it’s still stretching us to be in three places at once. Three people with keys, three people with registers, three people to keep the panic button in sight. Lewes had been kept simple because the prison couldn’t cope with multiple events, Erlestoke has been much more receptive so we are pushing to see what can be achieved.

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All prisons are different. In Lewes the prisoners and townsfolk can eyeball each other across the street.

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Erlestoke is set back from a country lane, tucked away in gardens, behind razor wire. Lewes is a Cat B local with a high turnover – “churn” in prison jargon. Erlestoke is a Cat C with 50% lifers and IPPs (Imprisonment for Public Protection), a more stable population. We shuffle on. Nobody walks quickly in prison. You adapt to the pace, no point in speeding to be first at the next gate. But that’s not life. This is what takes the newly released by surprise. Life comes at you fast. Life doesn’t wait for you to open doors.

Another gate and we are walking through the neat gardens towards the education block. After almost twenty years of prison projects I have finally been persuaded to carry keys. I was reluctant not just because it means a half day staring at slides warning of the multiple ways in which prisoners will try to corrupt you, but because it is far easier to follow someone else around. Now I have to learn the route, remember the rooms, decide whether someone has permission to go through a gate, all by myself. I don’t think I’ve had an unbroken night’s sleep since the festival began. Festivals, or good ones anyway, are a bit bonkers. Rather than calculate and Gradgrind-cost every event, you pour in talent-excitement- inspiration until the vessel overflows. Instead of offering the minimum, a good festival is designed so you can’t have it all. However much you run around you will miss something. You can gorge yourself but still know there was something you missed. You will still want more. Penned Up has twenty events crammed into its two weeks. “It’s crazy but brilliant-crazy”, a tutor tells me.

Still, despite the 4am wakings worrying about authors’ pen names, IDs, equipment, permissions, who to collect at the station, who to deliver back, I don’t have Mark’s worries. As well as putting the festival together with me he is staging a performance of David Mamet’s Duck Variations with a group of the men – but his group keeps shrinking. As soon as they agree they disappear, lines aren’t learnt, yet there is great confidence. “Ah don’t worry Mark; it’ll be all right on the day”. That day being Thursday, and today is Tuesday. I pass Mark in the yard muttering about glue, newspaper, and promises. I bet Mark sleeps even less than I do.

I drop Mr Gee at Education for his poetry workshop. Education loves the visitors. The wall is lined with photographs of them presenting certificates to the learners, and it’s been great to see so many tutors attend the events with their students. . Week Two, and already the opening with Erwin James feels a month ago. There is a sparking of interest around the place. After the months of preparation I’m recognised by most of the men hanging around corridors.
“Who you brought today?”
“Read the programme.” I know every prisoner has had a programme under their door because I know the poor bastard who did the job. But still they would rather trust their choice of event to a chance encounter minutes before the start.
‘Are they famous?”

I was that guitar player, Erwin James tweets before I collect him from the station. He’s excited because the prison band The Discarded is playing a short set after his opening speech. Erwin is a great speaker. Not just because he has the heft that comes from serving a life sentence, but also because he found a better version of himself during his time in prison. All of this means the men will listen to him, but staff are uneasy about someone convicted of murder receiving lots of attention. It brings them up hard on the anvil of rehabilitation, the stated aim of prisons such as Erlestoke, but how much rehabilitation can they take?

In the car on the way to the prison Erwin asks, “Are there any boundaries? How do you want me to play it?” I’d seen Erwin speak at literary festivals, to prison librarians, and to a packed gym at HMP Grendon.
“No boundaries,” I said. “It’s not about that.” And after the event I can see the staff who had been troubled now see it has been worth it. That it had got under everybody’s skin, and brought excitement and possibility fizzing into the room. Despite a tight window to get Erwin back for his train he insists on staying to hear the band. “I want to hear them,” and I can see he is excited. Penned Up isn’t the usual gig. Most of the time prison makes you feel small. The walls are tall, the numbers huge, the rules unclear and unspoken. Best be a mouse running through the cracks unnoticed. Now though, with Penned Up, it feels good to stand up proud, to be part of something that can fill the emptiness, however briefly.

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After Erwin, the band play a great set, and their magic moment comes in week two with Billy Bragg. The Discarded have sweated for this moment. Bragg is at Erlestoke because they invited him. The audience love to hear him speak with disarming honestly about his need to get on stage, his craving for his time up there, and then the band swing into The Price I Pay, the song they have chosen to perform with him. We watch Billy fumble for his glasses to check the tabs on the song he wrote almost thirty years ago, and the audience applaud the honesty of the human behind the star. “Nobody comes to my gigs to hear me sing,” he says.

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Behind the scenes, of course, there have been months of preparation, poring over spreadsheets, registers, organising movements so it all runs smooth. There is an assumption in prison that most things will fall away, never get beyond the planning stage. So the men on the committee are doubly proud to have both made it happen, and to know it is of high quality.

At the end of the festival there is time to reflect. Like all festivals, Penned Up is largely remembered in moments when something is shared: the men found Adam Robert’s discussion of 1984 and Brave New World fascinating. We all loved the visit from Robert Richards from Glastonbury festival. And then there was dear Charlie Mortimer in the library who started telling how he collected his Dad’s letters for Dear Lupin but then stopped reading from notes and looked up at the audience to say that he had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, when it was a death sentence. After a respectful silence, one of the men asked Charlie how it had felt to be told you were going to die. Charlie answered with honestly and openness – and the questioner nodded and said that’s how he had felt receiving his own life sentence.

When Kit de Waal spoke about her experiences of adopting children, a man sitting at the front, facing her, whispered so low that I think he intended only her to hear, that his own children were in care. It wasn’t an opening to discussion; more that he needed to voice that part of his story. “You’ve got to write your stories. There are not enough voices,” Kit told the audience.

Kit

The performance of Duck Variations did indeed take place and received enthusiastic applause. Festivals disrupt the norm; allow conversations to take place that could never find mouths or ears otherwise. They fill a space that you weren’t quite aware of before and leave you with more questions than answers. And all that is to the good.

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Feed the space

August 13, 2016 | Posted in: prison

Martina Cole at HMYOI Deerbolt

Martina Cole at HMYOI Deerbolt


Apart from illegal items, there are also prohibited items, which are not allowed into the prison. These include:

Items which may aid an escape, e.g. wire or abrasive materials.

‘It must be easy putting on events in a prison. Captive audience and all that.’
I’ve heard that a lot over the years. The other common assumption is that prisoners are so bored they’ll lap up any author who’s sent their way. They are bored but they want to work, go to classes, the gym, phone their families, take a shower, and eat. The prison regime is inflexible and you have to fit into it.

Famous? Not so famous? Authors are generally only well known to readers. Lots of prisoners are not readers. Your average literary festival author won’t warrant a second row of chairs in the prison library. What you need is someone who is famous outside the book-world, and/or has a fabulous backstory of his or her own. Generally I don’t take recommendations from publishers; ideally I ask people whom I’ve already seen at events, or who come with personal recommendations.

Mobile phones Laptops (unless authorised by the Security Manager)
Alcohol

library at HMP Thameside

library at HMP Thameside

Where? Most times it’s the prison library but they vary hugely in size. Some can hold 60, others you’re struggling for double figures. Two of the best prison events I’ve ever done were held in gyms: Martina Cole in HMP New Hall (women’s prison), and Erwin James at HMP Grendon. I worried a lot about these. Gyms don’t have great acoustics, we had no mics and both authors are softly spoken. In the end it didn’t matter. The gyms were crammed, which stopped the echoes, and both speakers had such resonance with their audience that people literally held their breath to hear. No coughs, no shuffles, just a warm expectation. At the end of Martina’s event there was a standing ovation. Literally. Honestly, I’ve never seen that for an author. Sure people will clap, will clap hard, even cheer, but to have the entire audience rise to its feet was amazing.

Chewing gum Glue / Blue tack Aerosols Metal Cutleries
Tin openers Any tools including scissors and nail files
Pornographic materials.

Erwin James at HMP Grendon

Erwin James at HMP Grendon


Prison is an intense environment, everything is stripped bare and laid open so people working/living there create ways of building distance and covering themselves. It’s the place where you realize that the nice middleclass thriller writer, whose books the prisoners love, can’t in the flesh fill the space. HMP Grendon is unusual as nobody is told who the speaker will be until they arrive at the gym. Prisoners apply to go six weeks before, and then need to be vetted. I think they now trust there will be a good speaker waiting for them. The audience’s response took even Erwin by surprise. “Prisoners lowering their defences, opening up to each other, sharing with each other, encouraging each other. You don’t normally get that in prison, where prisoners are actually lifting each other up, usually they’re pushing each other down.”

Pirate CDs/ CD rewrites and DVDs. Any Pyrotechnics

Make sure as many people in the prison know about your event. Get the governor there which means less chance of a last minute cancellation. Even a Martina Cole event will be cancelled if there is a shutdown.

Sometimes you take a chance with a writer because you think they can make a connection: Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy, and The Wonder Box. I figured an event would work but only if Roman could make people have a discussion rather than just sit and listen. And that’s what he did. More importantly he listened, and when leaving the event one prisoner said, ‘That’s the first intelligent conversation I’ve had in the two years I’ve been here.’

Pen knives
PDA’s with mobile facilities
Data sticks
Bluetooth ear pieces.
Perfume/Aftershave with the exception of ATAR which is permitted to Muslim prisoners and Staff.

Robert Muchamore is easily the most popular author amongst the juveniles (15-17 year olds). At the event his fans sat in the front row and the first question was: ‘How come you know so much about drugs?’

There is a different etiquette at prison events, for instance no pretence that money isn’t part of the writing deal. Writers are often asked how much they earn.

Andy McNab at HMP Pentonville

Andy McNab at HMP Pentonville

I’ve loved events with a wide variety of writers: Scroobius Pip, Dreda Say Mitchell, Bali Rai, Kimberley Chambers, and Noel Smith. All were prepared to open up beyond what they had written in their books

‘I didn’t think an author would be like that. She wasn’t that different from us. It makes you think you have choices:’ Teenage prisoner at HMYOI Feltham, after visit from Dreda Say Mitchell

At the Andy McNab event at HMP Pentonville the questions were not just about his life but his views on the politics of the Middle East.

A phone call asking if I could organise a prison event for Russell Brand took me by surprise. He wants to do a prison? I could imagine the sneers from some prison mangers. Do me a favour. What would the Daily Mail make of this? More likely they would leave me waiting for weeks with no answer until Brand had got bored and moved onto something else. I wanted him in a prison. I was no fan but I knew he would pull people into reading, into thinking and talking. I was lucky that Neil Barclay works in the library at HMP Thameside and within 20 minutes it was agreed Brand would visit. Neil has gone onto have a whole procession of authors and celebrities visit with more signed photos on his wall than most West End agencies.

Brand was late but for once the regime was going to bend. Never has it been so easy to get into a prison. I walked with Brand as he swayed limply across courtyards, down corridors, giving autographs on autopilot with a smile that barely held. “I don’t really know why the fuck I’m here,” he whispered to me as we entered the library. At this point I was worried he wouldn’t step up for the audience and I was going to be standing in front of 100 prisoners and staff in painful silence. The multi faith centre is rammed. We’ve let Khalid the library orderly do the introductions, and the prisoners are shouting him down, jeering and whistling in what I hope is mainly good humour.

Brand and I go in and sit down at the front. We have one mic between us. I start the interview but when Brand takes hold of the mic he is transformed.
It’s not quite Johnny Cash at San Quentin but he is electrifying. The first question comes from a prisoner who sees a dead relative in his mirror. The room quietens. Brand answers the man with hope, condolence and respect then, with perfect timing, moves onto the next question. From the moment he picked up the mic until the last question the audience are with him, and the only problem is getting back out through the autograph-hunting mob. It takes several burly guards to hold back the crush and usher us out. The whole prison feels truly alive. For one moment all the armour has dropped, and something is shared. We get to the exit and Brand is sulking because his phone is in the locker and his manager, who has the key, is still inside the prison.

A year later I’m with Martina Cole at HMP Pentonville. One of the prisoners waves and I go over. We shake hands and he introduces himself as Luke, who had been at the Brand event at Thameside. He grins in appreciation. ‘Yeah. He came in a celebrity and left a legend.’

Cameras (unless authorised by the Security Manager for specific events)

This list is not exhaustive and the searching officer has the power to confiscate any items that may present any threat to security

Excavation

July 3, 2016 | Posted in: literacy, museums, prison, young people

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‘What’s in the box?’ Boy A was already out of his cell and at the table. Boys B, C and D shuffled out too with the unsure glances and exaggerated stretches of newly uncaged dogs. I put the two handling boxes from Reading Museum down on the table carefully. I didn’t want a repeat of the previous week when the sheet of hardboard that covered the pool table almost slid off.
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‘Yeah, what you got this week?’ The Boys were pulling up chairs, rolling needle thin cigarettes whilst nudging, knocking and nipping each other in a good-hearted way. I’d learned it was best to let them get this out of their system before getting down to the workshop proper. They would have been in their cells for several hours by the time I arrived at the Separated Prisoner Unit. Sometimes they would have been in their cells for much longer.
‘What did you ask for?’
They groan. They’re teenagers, they can’t possibly be expected to remember what they’d said the previous week. Their requests and comments from last week’s workshop were fresh in my mind, but a week in the SPU is a week in another climate.

The Boys are here for their own safety. They are considered vulnerable to bullying from local villains settling a score, or else the crime they are accused of is so heinous that they would be fair game in the main population. The SPU is cut off from the warehouse-bulk of HMYOI Reading, a tiny block whose cells date back to when Oscar Wilde walked the treadmill. The Boys are all on remand. Throughout the project some are shipped out, others stay. Only in one session did one Boy stay behind his cell door. The other Boys mocked him gently, they know he’d find it easier out with them than in the cell with just himself. They have quite enough time to be inside their heads. The Boy doesn’t come out. The officers shrug; nobody is forced to join the workshops. Boy C tells me the Boy Behind the Door sobbed all the previous night. The workshops take place in the corridor that is just wide enough to accommodate the pool table and chairs. If the Boys lean back in their chairs they touch their cell doors.

Aside from our afternoon workshops a tutor comes down each morning to give them lessons, or show the occasional film. This project is a big deal for the Boys: It is contact with the outside world, with people who aren’t part of the regime. The officers generally stay out of our way and with remarkable politeness let us get on with our project. This is back in the early noughties. The political conversation is peppered with being ‘tough on the causes of crime,’ and ‘ handing out ASBOs’ but there is also ‘social exclusion’ and the need to take library and museum services to ‘new audiences’.

‘Open the fuckin’ box will you?’
Over the eight weeks I’ve learnt timing. How to let the anticipation build but not to make the Boys feel I had power over them. The handling boxes from Reading Museum are probably the best in the country. The museum officers had taken great pride in showing me how they boxed up artifacts under themes. Most museums just use them for the school curriculum: Victorians, World War Two etc. Reading had a much wider scope: Native Americans, the English Civil War, Natural History, Smoking and hundreds of others. Smoking – I had to bring this one in. Everybody smokes. The officers let me bring in everything except the opium scales.

Faced with a series of objects we would use them to write short pieces.
I was eleven years old when I started smoking. I remember as it was by birthday and I was over the park with my brother and his friend. I was so happy I could smoke properly I went round showing all my brother’s friends and hey were laughing. I like the smell and the taste of it. I felt like an adult.

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The Boys had loved the Natural History boxes: skulls, teeth, and skin.
The snake split slowly down the centre like a clean knife through the single layer. It rubbed itself in itchy ecstasy as it slid slowly free. The snake glittered in the bright sun, moist and beautiful. It slithered away leaving the dead husk behind, a shadow of itself.

Today it is the Egyptians.
‘I can’t believe I’m holding something like this. Thousands of years old. What if I drop it?’ I tell the Boy it’s fine. The museum has plenty. Some of the objects are encased in clear resin but the magic is still there. Boy A’s face is lit up. This is the point when the Boys ask me about particular object. Easy enough with old pub ashtrays but harder when you only have the name of the object: canopic jar. This leads to a wide-ranging discussion of Egyptian death rituals, curses, and rough geography. For several sessions I’d brought in a guest to help the Boys with their creative work. The Boys are generally open to trying to write but don’t like being pushed into things. The most successful sessions are with the poet Brendan Cleary. The Boys love him. Love his Irishness, his slightly dodgy dress sense, and his slipshod manner with everything except words. Brendan could get a poem out of my dog. It is Brendan who gets the Boys to address the object, speak directly to it rather than writing ‘about it’. Speak to it. This simple direction sparks the Boys into action. They create quickly and with great satisfaction. All read out their work. Sometimes the officers come in to listen They always admire the objects and occasionally shout various facts to fill the gaps in my knowledge.

Over a decade later I see that HMYOI Reading, closed since 2013, will be a Year of Culture venue in 2016
It always was.

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The Chase
So you see this animal is totally cool
The African plains her pride does rule
Tiger, I would love to meet ya!
In my eyes you’re a magnificent creature!

The Jackal head jar
Jackal head
you don’t look much like
a Jackal head to me

Jackal head
your ears remind me of a bat
flying through the Africa jungle

Jackal head
your face looks like a baby turtle
crawling up a hazardous beach
to the safety of the Atlantic Ocean

Jackal head
your stripes look like a vicious tiger
stalking a zebra on the African plains

Jackal head
you were the guardian of
some poor bloke’s stomach
As he made his way to he afterlife

Jackal head
what happened to the grisly contents
you once guarded?

Jackal head
Did you perhaps eat them
in a feeding frenzy?
And why were you trusted
with such a precious task
Jackal head?

I Saw This Book and Thought of You

May 2, 2016 | Posted in: prison, Reading

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I’m often asked what is my favourite book is but the question always throws me. My mind goes blank: what book is in my bag? What did I say last time? But it’s a perfectly logical question to ask the guy spouting off about how people should read and read more. Let’s cut to the quick and see what he likes. But favourite books are wrapped in so much of your life, it’s hard to let them stand on their words alone. Favourite books are where your read-life and your lived-life merge. Favourite books can be the ones that change you, comfort you, shock you, enlighten you, or fill your need for a story.

Being allowed by the lovely people at Give A Book to ramble on about potential favourites, made me realise why I tend to shy away from the question – that it’s just about me and, while I’m happy to talk about ME until the cows come home, reading for me is also about connecting with other people. First with the author, your thoughts swimming together, and then with others. Readers don’t have to like the same books, but it is a special moment when you meet someone who shares with you a love of a particular book or author.
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It can happen in the oddest places, and this isn’t the same as someone clocking what you’re reading and feeling they can give you their take on it. As a despatch rider, I was once sitting in the protean-wasteland of the Docklands, where new streets and buildings would appear each week. Another biker stopped, nodded at the cover of the book I was reading, The Anarchist Reader. I was immediately recruited into the anarcho –syndicalist DIWU (Despatch Industries Workers Union), given a key-ring with the apology that the DIWU had disbanded several weeks earlier.
So, no, not that kind of exchange. Nor the kind of prescribed list that publishers or prizes offer.
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I have felt that connection twice recently, both times in prison libraries, both about the books of John Connolly. I’ve been reading and rereading Connolly’s Charlie Parker series (do also read his stand alone novels, particularly the magnificent The Book of Lost Things). Initially a serial killer vs. detective narrative, the Parker books have since evolved its supernatural elements, becoming a grand mythology akin to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic whilst losing none of its heart.
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The first time was in the stacks of the prison library. I go into the stacks whenever I can, to look at what’s in stock and also to see what other people are interested in. There are some voracious readers in prison. This was a male prison and some of the men clearly thought I was there to offer “good reading choices”. The prisoner in the stacks was working through the Lee Child spines. I saw him slide by the Connollys and mentioned he might like them. Read them all. he said. And he had even the brand new collection of short stories. But we stood there talking over the latest Charlie Parker – connected. Equal for that moment and happy to share that space.

The second time was in a privately-run women’s prison. Privately-run prisons tend to have a smaller choice of books: they can’t refresh through the public library system. In this women’s prison, the prisoner has already chosen five of her six books when she asked me which other I would add. I saw she had a John Connolly in the pile and immediately we were like old friends chatting away about the series.
‘Five minutes left,’ the librarian called.
There weren’t any more Connollys. We were dancing round the stacks chatting about what else we’d read whilst promising the librarian we would be ready soon.
‘Three minutes,’ the librarian sang out, smiling at our search.
No early Clive Barker, Aickman too rare, and James Lee Burke too much on the crime side. Triumphantly I pounced on Peter Straub’s The Throat.
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Okay, she should probably read Koko first but The Throat is an amazing novel and has the same strands of crime, thriller, and supernatural as Charlie Parker. We rushed the library counter together, laughing for no other reason than it’s good not to be alone.

No crime here

March 2, 2016 | Posted in: Banned Books, literacy, prison

“Why haven’t you got it?” The female prisoner is genuinely puzzled. A book she’d read in her previous prison’s library isn’t allowed in her present prison. “ But,” she points to her friend, “she wants to read it.” The librarian is helpless. Basically, at this particular prison the governor has decided there will be no true crime titles in the library.

my daddy was a bankrobber
but he never hurt nobody
he just loved to live that way
and he loved to steal your money

50 years after the publication of In Cold Blood the true crime genre remains popular both inside and outside prison. Yes, it has its clichés, any UK top ten will feature at least one Kray-related book, but it is a very broad genre, often sneered at and snubbed in the way crime fiction was in its pulp days. Recently there has been an upsurge of interest with the success of the Serial podcast and Netflix’s Making of a Murderer – neither available to prisoners. We, the public, have always loved a crime narrative from Dick Turpin to the Great Train Robbers, or the Hatton Garden’s Diamond Wheezers. And we’ve generally paid very little heed to the victims. We remember the murderers, the robbers, the violent and their stories even/especially if they end tragically, but their victims rarely get the same acknowledgement.

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True crime books are so in demand that librarians often keep the most popular titles behind the counter and get the prisoners to sign for one-week loans. Like many things to do with the prison system there is no obvious logic to why one prison allows true crime and another forbids it. There are reasons for banning particular books. One prison officer told me, “We can’t have books about some of the people we hold in here. The first thing they do when they get here is check if they’re in any of the books.”

Noel ‘Razor’ Smith’s top three true crime books
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Often the true crime section is what appeals to the non-reader in prison. It offers a view on the world that resonates with the prisoner, which is one of the things we search for as readers: to find our lives represented. It’s a gratifying and electrifying experience to know you are not alone.

‘It wasn’t until I read autobiographies during my incarceration by two infamous criminals – one of whom turned into a writer and academic, John McVicar and another who became a writer and renowned sculptor, Jimmy Boyle that I then felt it was acceptable to become a student.’ David Honeywell

The writer Erwin James, himself an exlifer, has spoken about the desire to change that most, if not all, prisoners feel, and self-help is the other massively popular section of the prison library.

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Does it matter if prisoners spend their sentences reading up on past crimes? Reading books that show crime can be exciting during and between the violence, broken families, and prison sentences. Crime fiction, on the other hand, gives the same excitement and thrills but also comforts. It fills the gaps that pepper true crime narratives where people drift in and out of the story. In crime fiction there is always resolution. Some true crime titles just drift away towards the end, as the writer runs out of things to say, or their life gets boring. Bruce Reynold’s Autobiography of a Thief is brilliant up to the Great Train Robbery but then quickly loses momentum.

The best true crime speaks to more than just that time and place. Governors might protest that there is not enough repentance: the criminals are not humbled, not broken enough, but for their readers that is exactly the point.

One governor I spoke to seemed unhappy about any book that showed the joy/pleasure of crime rather than the suffering that came afterwards. This reminded me of the futile Just Say No anti-heroin campaign. It didn’t work because it was so one-sided. It was books such as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or Melvyn Burgess’ Junk that truly hit the mark because they showed the whole heroin-world: the pleasure, the degradation, the subtleties, the lies, and allowed readers to judge for themselves.

so we came to jazz it up
we never loved a shovel
break your back to earn your pay
an’ don’t forget to grovel

Bankrobber – The Clash

A matter of choice

September 6, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, prison, Reading, Uncategorized

Now the ban on sending books to prisoners is over, the chatter is about which books to send. Books have always been an important part of prison life. In this Pathe News clip of The Cell of the Future (1959) a selection of books can be glimpsed. It’s a mixture of thrillers, historical novels, and comedy. The only name that sticks out is Edith Pargeter (Holiday with violence) who, as Ellis Peters, wrote the Brother Cadfael series.
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A more contemporary cell would probably have Martina Cole, James Patterson, a graphic novel, and something like Sharpe with a bit of true crime and self-help thrown in. It would also be more cramped and there would be a bag of breakfast cereal next to the kettle.

At an event in HMP Grendon a couple of years ago I was asked to bring along a book I’d enjoyed, to give to prisoners. I chose Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog. It had really cast a spell over me when I read it and it has a wide range of characters to empathise with. I handed out a couple of copies to prisoners and thought no more about it. Two years later I’m back at Grendon with Erwin James who talked about how his reading developed and changed during his time in prison. When he was first there he read westerns such as the Edge series (I loved these as a teenager) but it was book called Prisoners of Honour that someone gave him that struck a chord. After the talk I’m standing there giving out dictionaries for those who have completed the Six Book Challenge when a voice says, “You know that book you said we should read?”
I have no idea what the man standing in front of me is talking about. I’m frozen in the act of handing him a dictionary.
‘Already got one.’
He’s waiting for me to pick up the conversation. The men queuing behind wait politely, no fuss. Time stops. I know the staff needs us out in a few minutes and lots of people still want to chat with Erwin
Did I recommend a particular book in the talk with Erwin before? I can never remember what I say my favourite book is: Rumblefish, Seventh Heaven, Winter’s Bone, Game of Thrones?
I must have been still looking blank when he launched into why my recommendation hadn’t come up to scratch. “It started off okay but it went a bit Hollywood at the end.”
And then I’m in the conversation and for the next few minutes as we stand there, my brain is buzzing, trying to remember the points I want to make. It’s clearly all primed in the mind of the reader in front of me. Perhaps when you’re struggling with your own demons, trying to make the rights choices, you don’t want to read about people who deceive themselves, and repeatedly make bad choices.
We talk and it reminds me why I love discussing books, particularly when a discussion pops up unexpectedly like this. I might not have chosen the right book for this particular reader but we are enlivened by the argument. It is a bridge between us. An equalizer.

Back to sending books to prisoners. The best comment I saw was from Russell Webster who simply tweeted Depends on what they want to read. Exactly.

The Fifty Word Breakfast

April 26, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, prison

ricekrispies

There are many uses for creative writing in prison. It can calm, it can improve letters home, it can focus thoughts, and give confidence. Often writing students feel they need drama and conflict on the very first page, and that is useful for short stories and novels, but in other kinds of writing we have the freedom to look at the everyday, the normal, the humdrum – turn it over and see what lies beneath. Too much of life is dismissed as unworthy of attention when it could be savoured and fully lived. There are tensions: do we really want to live every minute of a day at work, or a day in prison?… but the alternative is to give away that time; allow it to be drained by daytime TV. Time killed is time not lived. Writing offers a way of reclaiming that time: re-experiencing, filtering, to make it one’s own.

The Fifty Word Breakfast came from a recent prison workshop where I asked the men about their days. “Get up. Have Breakfast. Wait for the door to be unlocked.”
I asked for words to describe breakfast. As the words were offered up the world they described also came in to view. There were three possible breakfasts: rice krispies, cornflakes, or weetabix (no porridge). Weetabix was the least popular but as it rarely appeared it wasn’t too much of problem. The rice krispies “settle down with a sigh” rather than any snap, crackle or pop. The older men tell me how they buy dried fruit or a banana from the canteen to make the breakfast more palatable. They even swap recipes! The youngers say the biggest question is not what you will eat but when. Whether you will be so hungry in the night you will have to eat your breakfast before morning.

We try it in 100 words exactly. That way we select each word carefully, weigh up the choice, take cuts we would not otherwise have made.

Tomorrow it will be rice krispies. Not the ones you remember from when you were a kid. No snap-crackle-pop in these buggars. Pouring on the milk – UHT – which doesn’t even pour right. When it lands there is a little hiss like a punctured tyre. I can only hear this on the days when the cell is quiet. When no one is shouting, farting or moaning. I hold my plastic spoon, drop in the krispies into my plastic bowl, wait until the noise dims and then tip in the milk and wait for that slow hiss. And another day will begin.

yard

It’s the same when we discuss the walk in the yard. It’s full of the minutiae of prison life. Everyone, inside or outside of prison, tends to take their way of living for granted. It’s just how things are. A writer’s eye picks put the details that will make a reader see it anew. Make it foreground not background.
“Walking around the gobbers. Not talking to anyone. Trying to keep your eyes on the ground to avoid the gobs, but also avoiding eye contact with other prisoners.”
“Always anti clockwise. We don’t know why but you can’t go the other way.”
“To the officers it’s like walking dogs. They’ll call us back in if there’s the slightest drop of rain. I’ve only felt rain once in four months.”
“I try to keep my head up. I don’t want to walk with my head down but that makes it harder to avoid the gobs.”
“I count the laps. I try to make each lap a bit different. Each time I go a slightly different route. It’s the only time I feel free. The only time I can think.”

For some of the men letters home are vital. They discuss what it is permissible to write about. How likely it is that other people will see their words, and how much they can reveal.

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‘I’ve got two mattresses now and my sleep has much improved.’ I wrote that in my letter to the wife. I tell her only the good things. I tell her my cleaning job gets me out and about. Gives me more canteen money. I tell her that Joe has made an air conditioning from a fan and a wet towel. She’s not to worry about me in this heat wave. All positive. I don’t tell her that in each hour between the clock striking I’ve gone out of my life a thousand times, changed it, and none of those changes land me back here – where a torch is shone in my face, where the distressed and the pissed-off kick at the doors.

Evening.
“ It’s like being married, the relationship with your pad mate, your cellie.”
“You have to see if he’s a reader, or a telly head. Will you watch the same things together? Can you agree at what time the TV goes off?”
“There’s so little privacy. Using the toilet, it’s only fair to warn them when to light a joss stick.”
“We drape a sheet over the light to dim it. As it gets dark you can’t see the walls. Gets all snug, and you forget where you are.”

Read Write Imagine III

April 26, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, prison, Reading, young people

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As a teenager, watching bands in the local pub was a big influence on my musical taste. With no internet, and only the music press and the top 40, it was hard to expand your knowledge of the music you liked. The bands at The Bay Horse mainly played cover versions but it was only after the third version of Freebird that I got the idea. Covers were, and often are, derided as lesser than an original song. Less authentic, but secretly I love a good cover. It gives us familiarity, whilst still allowing the artist license to rework elements of the song. It seemed a good place to start for a writing workshop. Take something that already existed, that people could put their own stamp on. It would be faster and hopefully less intimidating than a blank page.

Cannongate have their reworked myths but I wanted something more in common knowledge. Shorter. Where you could still hear the original bones underneath.

Fairy stories are perfect for this. They’re familiar to most, not considered ‘literature’, and flexible enough to allow the writer to bend and twist the story whilst still keeping a flavour of the original. To keep the idea tight I decided that these modern reworkings had to be exactly 150 words long. The Grimm150, as it became known, proved an excellent way for writers to learn the value of editing and rewriting.
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The idea was tested first in HMYOI Brinsford

Once upon a time in a city called Birmingham there lived two children and their names were Hansel and Gretel. One murky afternoon Hansel was playing on his phone while Gretel danced around her room, when all of a sudden, their mum comes storming in and started to smash up the bedroom, even the house. The children know she is drunk again. While this was happening their dad was working. The dad is working for a zoo. Hours had passed and Hansel and Gretel’s dad had just finished work. He looked at his watch and the watch said 6pm so he could not be bothered to go home. He decided to head for a bar then a brothel. The children were getting scared when the dad bursts in and says to them “We don’t love you anymore. You can’t live here anymore. “ The dad kicks them into the street.
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Funded by a Clarrisa Luard Award donated to The Reading Agency by Julian Barnes, I ran 10 workshops in 10 Young Offender Institutes.

Of course, many of the young men never had fairy stories read to them. If they knew them at all it was from Disney DVDs, but they quickly improvised with characters from Toy Story and of course Winnie the Pooh. Two lads did a fabulous performance of a washed up Winnie and Tigger on a park bench. Others created their own totally original stories:

Once upon a time in a city called London there was a small place called Longate. There lived a family who was not very well known to the community because they were new to Longate. They never came out of their house and even if they did, it was as if no one ever saw them. It was like they were invisible, and this made the family very angry. It didn’t feel fair for everyone to act as if they weren’t there. One night they decided to kill everyone in Longate. All those who acted as if they were invisible. They left their house and went out into Longate. They killed everyone and then dragged the bodies into the dark woods. In the woods they turned everyone into werewolves, just like they were. Now all the people they’d killed would live again, and nobody would feel left out again.

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The ten workshops produced some great material and, judging by the thanks I got at the end of each workshop, many enjoyed the experience. This would often be as much about group dynamics as the material produced. Some were proud they had produced something, particularly those who had never written anything before. Others loved sense of play and performance in riffing on a well-known story: Goldilocks and the Three Drug Dealers, Little Red in the Hood etc. Some would give the story of their crime, and some would go into a kind of trance and work furiously. Checking and counting their words out loud, uncaring and unknowing of any one else in the room, as they tried to land the story that had ignited in their head.

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I need her, I must keep her. Nobody must have her.
I do this not to hurt her but to protect her.
She is my sleeping beauty.

I see how he looked at her, as if to give the impression he
Was her prince Charming, as if his kiss could rescue her but
He just wants to take her from me.
She needs me. I am her father, and she is my sleeping beauty.

She is so peaceful, so still, a thing of absolute beauty. This is
Why I must keep her, she must not be exposed to the cruel way of men. She is too pure, too innocent. She is my sleeping beauty.

If only she knew my reasons why, I know she would understand. He is not right for her. He only wants to take her away but no one can have her. She is my sleeping beauty.

Ginge HMYOI Glen Parva

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The most powerful book in prison

January 23, 2015 | Posted in: prison, Reading

dictionary

 

Martina Cole is certainly the most popular author amongst UK prisoners. In the prison library true crime, urban fiction, and self –help are the most popular genres, but the single most sought after book in prison is a dictionary. Prison librarians despair of ever being able to keep them on the shelves so often are they stolen, or never returned. Knowledge is indeed power. In our spell-checked world, with a thesaurus at our fingertips, it is easy to forget the power of the book of words, their meanings, and their usage. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 wasn’t the first but it became the most prevalent as he imposed order on the ‘unruly mess’ of the English language. His desire to capture, order, and define is beautifully punctured in Blackadder the Third.

 

The Oxford English Dictionary had taken fifty years to complete by the time it was finally published in 1928. It is still the major reference work updated each year. One of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the original OED was William Chester Minor, a convicted murderer confined to Broadmoor.

 

In 2015 prison is still a world of pen and paper, and it’s not always easy to get hold of either. Prison issue pens look like they came in Christmas crackers. According to the Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, 47% of prisoners in England & Wales have no qualifications at all, and 21% reported needing help with reading and writing. Prisoners have often told me that they will study a dictionary to increase their vocabulary. Without access to the right words how can you describe your feelings? You need the right words to make sense of an argument and to nail a fact. Words are bandages, shields, daggers and shotgun blasts. Young offenders love the rhyming dictionary for their lyrics. A dictionary is essential for understanding legal documents, and keeping in touch with family. Foreign language dictionaries are even more sought after. In England and Wales 12% of prisoners are foreign nationals. There is one lady who has made it her mission to comb London charity shops for foreign language dictionaries that she then donates to the local prison.

 

Being given a dictionary often marks a rite of passage. I can remember being given the bible and an Oxford Pocket Dictionary when I left primary school. The bible was the smaller of the two. Over the last two years the charity Give A Book has given over 5000 mini dictionaries to prisoners who have completed The Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge (now known as Reading Ahead). It is without doubt the best incentive to take up the challenge to read, and to read more.

 

Even on the out the dictionary, electronic or paper, is essential. How many of us would confidently expose ourselves with words if we couldn’t trust that we had used them correctly?