Writers Behind Bars

A Day in the LifeĀ of a Writer in Residence in Prison

Eight in the morning and I’m waiting at the gate to be let through the security doors to collect my keys. I’m going into prison again. Unlike most of the people I work with I’ll be let out tonight.
As a Writer in Residence in Prison I spend two and a half days a week in the prison, working with offenders, officers and other staff. It’s probably the most exhausting and at the same time the most rewarding job I’ve ever done.

THE SCHEME


The Writers in Residence in Prison Scheme was set up in 1992 by the Arts Council of England and the Home Office. Since that time approaching 100 residencies have been placed in a wide variety of establishments throughout the country.

The Scheme employs writers who are experienced or established in particular literary fields; many have been creative writing tutors, or have worked in publishing, the theatre, television, radio or journalism. They are skilled communicators and facilitators with a genuine interest in working with the prison population.

The writers are there to enrich the whole prison, available to work with both staff and offenders. They have created a legacy of magazines, anthologies, audio, video and live drama productions and other projects which have helped project a positive image for the prison. They have also brought into the prison writers and poets, theatre groups and musicians for staged events, readings and workshops.

WIN A MARS BAR!


This morning there’s a session with my two offender editors putting the finishing touches to the latest issue of the magazine before printing. All the guys in the larger editorial group are part of the Network’s nationally accredited NUJ Access to Journalism course. We’ve got an interview with Governor No.1 about changes in the regime, a great selection of stories and features, and we’re announcing the winner of our poetry competition – first prize phone credits, Mars bars to the runners up. Tomorrow night on one of the wings we’ll gather our volunteer workforce together to collate, fold and staple before distributing it hot from the press to everyone in the prison.

The guys are rounded up at 11-30 for lunch and the midday bang up. I get my head down to reading more of the never ending stream of manuscripts which come my way. Autobiography, poems for girlfriends, novels, TV scripts – you name it, they write it. There are a lot of extremely talented guys inside, some only discovering their creative talents for the first time.

THE ONLY LEGAL WAY TO ESCAPE


A quick bite down at the officers’ mess, then it’s an afternoon session with my short story group. We’re exploring creating characters today and the room rocks with laughter as we share our ideas. Most of the guys find creative writing a refreshing interlude in the boring routine of prison life. “It’s the only way I can escape,” one of them smiles, and he means it.

The group disappears back to the wings at 4-30. Time to sort myself out for the evening rounds on the wings, visiting guys in their pads to discuss the work they’ve given me. These one-to-one feedback sessions are an essential part of my work. Eight o’clock is bang-up and I make my way back to the gate. A short drive to my B & B after a pint at the local and a chance to prepare for the storytelling session in the morning. We’re recording oral stories on tape with a group of young dads to send out to their kids. A brilliant idea, Storybook Dad helps families keep in touch while the guys are inside.

GOING FOR IT


I’m knackered, but it’s been a good day. I make notes for tomorrow night’s rehearsal for the play. You have to be mad to put a play on in prison – think production on the outside and multiply the stress factor by ten. My designer was shipped out on day one and I’m losing an actor a week but we’ll get the show on the stage if it kills us.

The guys have written the script themselves and they’re loving every minute of it. None of them have ever performed and only one of them has ever set foot in a theatre before but we’re going for it.

The buzz is amazing. Think production on the outside and multiply by ten.Reading group in the afternoon following the morning’s storytelling. The group is halfway through the Networks Stories Connect course. We’re reading and discussing a compelling novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, about a teenage murderer, written by Lionel Shriver. Can’t wait to see what the guys have made of it.

Then it’s showtime. Fingers crossed my new leading man has learned his lines. The magazine group will forgive my absence this week. There’s a big feature on next week’s performances, one public, one prison, in the issue they are collating.

Writers in Prison Network and someone from the Arts Council are coming to seethe show before we have one of our regular steering groups. We’ll review how the last three months have gone and preview what’s happening over the next quarter. Some exciting things in prospect as we plan our induction video as well as recording a rap CD.

It’s great to see the Prison Service taking the arts seriously and realising that they can have an important role to play in the rehabilitation process, as well as improving the quality of life inside – for officers as well as offenders. People who put their energies positively into creative activities tend to get into trouble less often.
Just time to read another chapter of another guy’s novel before getting my head down. I’m looking forward to going back to prison tomorrow.