Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020

I work in a prison library and alongside all usual library duties, I also run a creative writing group. I began it a couple of years ago when some of the prisoners said they’d really enjoyed a one-day poetry workshop and would appreciate the opportunity for a more regular creative outlet. As a writer and editor, I figured it was something I could offer to add value to our library. And so it began…

When I can, I run the group weekly. Each session begins with the men reading out the previous week’s homework – if they want to and if they have done it, neither homework nor sharing is compulsory. Then I set a writing exercise using prompts and the guys write for about 10 minutes and again share that work. I finish up by reading a story, usually flash, that highlights something we’re working on, or is simply good, and set the following weeks homework.

The trickiest thing is trying to make sure the exercises are enjoyable for everyone as there is such a wide variety of men who join. I like to think I create a safe space. Once you start writing and sharing work you reveal something of yourself and I have consistently been impressed by the respect and support these guys offer each other. I’ve been lucky enough to have some excellent people take part. I’ve been moved to tears by some of the stories and moved to laughter by others.

I was invited to give a presentation on running a creative writing group last year at the Prison Libraries Training Day held by CILIP which was well received. This month I was delighted to discover I have won the Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020 and one of the reasons given was because after my presentation several other prison libraries began creative writing groups. I’m so unbelievably chuffed. I truly believe creative writing is a powerful thing to do in a prison – or anywhere! Writing can be cathartic. It can be healing. It can be a release for all sorts of emotion. It can also be daft, shallow, and just for fun.

Anyway, I’m showing off and popping this here:

Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020 winner

The CILIP Prison Libraries Group is delighted to announce that the 2020 Excellence in Prison Libraries Award has been won by HMP Ford for its “Well-being Through Creative Writing” project. The project was devised and is run by Sara Crowley, Senior Library Assistant at HMP Ford. Sara is also a writer and Managing Editor of Forge literary magazine.

The project began as a six-week trial but became so successful that the group now runs weekly. They meet in the library and, as well as exploring creative writing, they also discuss reading. Sara is keen to point out that it’s not all serious – “we play word games, enjoy puns, tell jokes and laugh a lot. The men learn to express themselves better which is a useful transferable skill.”

The reaction from the men involved has been overwhelmingly positive:

“It’s been a great release for my stress. I’m so grateful.”

“It’s very calming and helps my mental health.”

“It gives me a means to reflect creatively; managing my emotions.”

“It’s a nice break from prison each week with the ability to unload in a safe space.”

Participants are encouraged to share their work if they wish to and some have entered national writing competitions – one member of the group won the East Riding Poetry competition.

The group has also been visited by some high-profile poets and writers, including Simon Brett, who have shared their knowledge and expertise.

The judges were particularly impressed with the way that this project works in a variety of situations. Sara has done sessions with literacy classes in the prison and with groups of library users “outside.”

Sara was invited to give a presentation on running creative writing groups at the Prison Libraries Group training day in 2019. She outlined the activities of her group and then engaged the delegates in various word play activities to show how easy it is to create stories. As a result of this presentation, several prison libraries have started groups based on this model.

This is an excellent example of how a project can inspire not just those taking part in it but can also reach out to a wider audience.

Contacts:

CILIP Prison Libraries Group – info.prlg@cilip.org.uk

Prison stories.

I’ve been working in a prison library and teaching creative writing there for a few years now. I’m fortunate to do a job I love and find meaningful and I spend a lot of time talking to prisoners about their lives. It’s pretty impossible to take part in a creative writing group without revealing something of yourself (although at least one person has managed) and I see it as a privilege to be part of a process that helps people open up and explore their creativity. I think that’s one of the reasons I stayed away from writing any prison based fiction for so long. I want to be respectful and would hate to be exploitative. I try to encourage the men to write their own stories. (Saying that there are a few guys whose stories I would love to write. I do have a little fantasy of doing a Three Women kinda thing where I could follow up on their lives for 10 years or so – it’d be fascinating – before and after prison. I’m fairly sure the prison wouldn’t agree though.)

When you spend time in a place it inevitably seeps into your writing and I have begun a series of short prison stories. They are fiction and aren’t based on anyone real. I am, however, grateful to some of the guys for their assistance with details about kettle cooking and help with language. I learnt some stuff. Apparently, nobody would ever call another prisoner a dude unless they were a “middle class, middle aged wanker from Cornwall.” Also, if you need to know how to jam a kettle switch to make it a hotplate, I’m your gal.

Thanks to The Mechanics’ Institute Review for publishing my story, Doing Time.

http://mironline.org/doingtime/

A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins

I’ve just read A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins. A successful journalist and documentary filmmaker, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison for a tax fraud he became involved in when looking for ways to finance a project. As someone used to documenting events he kept a detailed diary about his time in Wandsworth. It’s an interesting look at what life “inside” is like. While the tabloid headlines continue to scream about “lags” living it up at the tax payer’s expense in “holiday camp” prisons, Atkins calmly pulls back the curtain and exposes the reality of how this country treats its prisoners.

Nothing I read was news to me because I work in a prison library in an open prison (which Atkins describes as being “like the Ritz in comparison”) and often prisoners tell me their stories; what they did, which prison they have been in and the things they’ve seen. Atkins worked the system as best he could, acknowledging that as a white, middle class, well-educated man he had many advantages most prisoners don’t. He quickly got himself on the “best” wing. He volunteered as a Listener – a prisoner trained by the Samaritans to provide assistance to other prisoners in crisis. He met with many desperate people, most of whom have mental health issues which make them incapable of the kind of conformity the prison regime demands. They are punished rather than treated. Men are locked up 23 hours a day. The ideal of rehabilitation via education, health and work followed by appropriate resettlement is unavailable. Teachers stand in empty classrooms because there aren’t enough officers to unlock the men. Healthcare appointments are missed for the same reason. 

I smiled at the publishing blurb which asks “Where can a tin of tuna buy you clean clothes?” One evening at work a prisoner asked me to photocopy something for him and to my surprise offered me a tin of tuna as an incentive. It was only when I mentioned it to one of the men who worked with me in the library I discovered it’s prison currency. It’s that familiarity with the narrative that made this book perhaps slightly less engaging to me as so much of it was like conversations I regularly have, however, I think anyone curious about what it’s like to be in prison will find this book fascinating. It’s important stuff too. Atkins balances darkness and desperation with much-needed humour through anecdotes and encounters with prisoners and officers. There’s camaraderie too; that essential and often unlikely bond between people in similar situations. And also, the heartbreak of being away from his young son. Every time someone is imprisoned there are other people who suffer; family and friends – the impact on children is huge. 

Prison reform is a tough subject because the public is resistant to spending money on those who commit crime. Why make life easier for people who have done the wrong thing? It comes way down on the wish list when you consider how all of our services are so stretched and underfunded. Who would choose funding prisons over education, healthcare, adult services etc? It’s no election winner. Atkins suggests most reasonable people agree everyone should be treated with at least minimum standards of decency and care, but for the throw away the key brigade he employs unarguable statistics: “Britain has the worst reoffending rate in Europe with 48% of ex-prisoners being reconvicted within one year of release. The cost of reoffending alone is estimated at £15 billion, more than three times the entire prison budget.” Atkins ends the book with his suggestions for improvement which are pretty compelling. For more information please look at the Prison Reform Trust which does sterling work in this field.

I do want to end by saying I have come across many people who work in prisons who are absolutely motivated to support and rehabilitate people so they leave prison in a better position than they went in. Breaking the cycle of offending is what we all want, surely? 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑