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December 16, 2005

So what is a writer-in-residence doing in a prison?

Posted by Emily Kingham

In response to her first Notes from a Prison for the Social Affairs Unit, Emily Kingham was asked, "so what are you doing there?" Here she explains what she - as a writer-in-residence at a Category B local prison - is doing there.

OK, so what am I doing there?

Since you ask, as the writer-in-residence, I'm creating a space for prisoners to be creative. More precisely, this means I encourage them to write poetry, fiction, life stories, song lyrics or to record their stories on tape. These stories can be for their children - bed-time stories from absent dads. Strengthening precarious family bonds is vital for rehabilitation and for the prevention of future young criminals.

The work I am engaged in may sound like a waste of time and money to those of you bent on tackling crime and the causes of crime, but around 80% of prisoners in the UK cannot read or write, or are dyslexic. In the current educational jargon, in terms of their literacy skills, they are at pre-entry level. As I put it, they can barely write their own names. Does that tell you something about the causes of crime and why I do what I'm doing?

Crime, whether it's violent, drug-related or car-driven, becomes a form of self-expression for those who have fallen off the edge of conventional social networks. And these are the kinds of crime the prisoners I work with are banged up for.

Driving without a license means that many young men become repeat offenders. Cars are their means of escape, just as drugs fill a vacuum for others. These young men are frustrated, volatile, and voiceless until they cause havoc. And it becomes a dreadful necessity that they have to be put away to protect themselves and the general public from harm. Some of these men are so damaged by their formative experiences (sexual abuse is another overwhelmingly common factor in male prisoners) that prison is the only safe place for them.

In my first week at HMP I was asked to see a prisoner on the Segregation block. I was told that he was in a "three-person unlock", which means that it took three prison officers to get him in and out of his cell. Accompanied by two officers - one remained in the doorway - I walked into his tiny cell.

He had been dancing to his radio on my entry. But he turned the sounds off (heavy house that kept his pulse at an unsustainable high) and sat back on his bed. He was blazing with energy. He could barely contain his agitation. In his over-stimulated state I remained deadpan.

I had been shown some of his poetry already. It was apparent to me that he had considerable natural ability. His poorly spelt poems betrayed an instinctive grasp of poetic form. They were powerful meditations on good and evil, doing right and wrong. The idiomatic freshness of one in particular - Oppersits - became movingly biblical in its allusive final stanza. The message may have been tired but the delivery was startlingly fresh. There were misspellings and neologisms, which could be put down to illiteracy, but in a literary context worked brilliantly to surprise and delight the reader. There was passion and conviction that what he was saying was important because it had such personal relevance. And, because of that, the old story of good vs. evil was given new vitality.

The prisoners I have met are poorly educated but a surprisingly large number of them have exceptional talent. It is that brightness in them, that need to challenge and explore boundaries in the same way that artists do, that makes them hazardous company. They have no discipline. They are only used to inciting negative attention.

If I could get my poet in Segregation to sit down and write more poems, to think about crafting them carefully, to impose structure on the chaos of emotions coursing through him, then I could consider myself to have done something useful.

I wish I could say I succeeded in that. For reasons I cannot disclose, it was impossible. Ultimately, all I was able to do was type his poems and present them to him, nicely laid out on A4. I added a lengthy critique full of encouragement and praise. I took him seriously as a talented human being who had something interesting to say.

This was the first time anyone had done anything like this for him.

So, on that particular day, that was what I was doing there.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.


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Leftist, bleeding-heart clap-trap. Are you seriously suggesting that these people commit crimes simply because they're unable to read? People steal cars because they're amoral sociopaths, not because they have "fallen off the edge of conventional social networks". They have jumped. They commit crimes voluntarily. They put themselves outside of society. Their reward? Individual tuition, however ulitimately pointless, aimed at persuading them that they're the victims.

Do I really pay for this?

Posted by: The Weasel Bearder at December 19, 2005 01:18 PM
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Interesting to look at criminal behaviour as a perverted form of artistic self-expression.... gives one a lot to think about ....

Posted by: January at December 21, 2005 07:43 PM
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Why dont you get some of these prisoners poems published in a book?

Posted by: fluke at April 16, 2006 09:44 PM
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