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December 15, 2006

Our prisons are populated by Peter Pan figures - deadly dangerous mummy's little boys who won't grow up, finds writer-in-residence Emily Kingham

Posted by Emily Kingham

When writer-in-residence Emily Kingham takes Ted Hughes' Crow poems to her workshop, the prisoners hate them. It is because they are too close to home.

I am currently working with a sex offender whose face has been splattered all over the News of the World and the Sun. These newspapers have not spared their readers the grotesque details of his crime. Their reporters must have attended court to have access to such information. The reporting of sex offences is so blatantly prurient and hysterical that the victims in such cases must feel as though they have been raped three times: once by the assailant, twice by the legal process and finally by the press, which shows no sensitivity for their dignity, which has already been undermined.

As far as the offender is concerned, he becomes the focus of all our culture's sexual anxiety and is thus demonised and made "monstrous". This is so irresponsible that it is tantamount to soliciting a crime, if not being accessory before and after the fact.

I keep telling the men I work with - the ones who are run-of-the-mill offenders - that not all the sex offenders are on the VP (Vulnerable Prisoner) unit, and not all the prisoners on the VP unit are sex offenders. They disregard me - "nonces" are a suitable target for their anger and confusion over their own attitudes to sex and women. What I am trying to tell them is to face their own demons before they target those of others.

Also, I want to say, how awful it must be if you can only express your sexual feelings through humiliating, degrading and hurting others. How can such people live with themselves? The answer is; quite happily. Sex offenders are notorious for justifying their proclivities and inhabiting their own moral universe.

But this particular sex offender I am working with is emblematic of prisoners in general. He has a double life, or a split personality, call it what you will. He presents himself as an affable, gentle soul, endlessly obliging and sensitive. Of course, he is all these things. But he is something else, as well. The same goes for all the men I deal with. They show me their vulnerable, sensitive side, but they have been convicted for violent offences, and their relationships with women are violent and tumultuous.

Since I have been made so aware of this paradox, I have been taking poems into my workshop that explore violence and darkness, namely the Crow series by Ted Hughes. My students hated these poems. For a start, they don't rhyme (and prisoners, as I have pointed out before, are reassured by order - it offsets their own chaos). Secondly, they don't want to deal with verbal manifestations of nastiness in human behaviour. This is the height of hypocrisy, as far as I am concerned, and hypocrisy is something I cannot abide. Maybe I'm being too hard on them, but I want them to face up to the destructive forces that reside in all human hearts. I want them to be "real".

This does not mean that I want to depress them, or make them feel bad about themselves, it means that I see an ocean of need in prisons and that that need overwhelms me. The only way I can cope with that is to try and make them see themselves in the round, and thus take responsibility for who they are, whilst recognising, that essentially, they are no different from anyone else, although they are more culpable. Even an erstwhile Poet Laureate had his dodgy moments, but he confined those moments to paper. Well, if you're a Sylvia Plath fan you might think otherwise.

The Crow is an interesting character. At one and the same time he is a creator and destroyer, giver and negator. He dupes others and is duped himself. These men have much to offer. They are more intelligent than they know, they are creative, and yet they destroy themselves and others. It is a trueism that addicts tend to be over-sensitive and thus incapable of dealing with the rough and tumble of human interaction, and unable to deal with frustration. They are duped by others in the sense that they involve themselves with women who are as manipulative and drawn to violence as they are.

These men, like Crow, will nothing consciously. They behave, like toddlers, from impulses over which they have no control. They get gullible staff, like me and certain well-meaning officers, to run around arranging their lives for them. They don't want control over their lives. They want to control others who will provide structure for them. It is their ability to make others provide for them that gives them their sense of power.

Crow, like the men I work with, possesses no values, moral or social, and is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being. This is where, on a purely intellectual level, criminals are interesting. We learn what is acceptable and unacceptable from those who push the boundaries and force taboos. I can't help feeling that these men have been indulged and adored by mothers who enjoyed rather too much the roguish element in their little boys. These men are funny. Laughter, humour and irony permeate everything they do. But their desires express an inchoate being of undetermined proportions, a figure foreshadowing the civilised shape of man. What I'm getting at is the lack of paternal authority in their lives and their ensuing contempt for rules. They are mummy's little boys, Peter Pan figures, and deadly dangerous.

In short, Iain Duncan Smith has got it absolutely right.

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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