On Memoir Work With Offenders


How do we start, where do we start, when we start writing with offenders; with prisoners? Most prisoners, most youngsters with youth offending teams, or adults with probation, like the rest of us begin by writing about themselves. Some prisoners approach me and ask if I can help them write about anything but their own lives. I remember getting a referral from a lad who had just been sentenced to thirteen years and when the officer unlocked him he swung off the bunk and said. “I don’t want to write anything about crime, anything to do with gangs.” But this is the exception, for the perennial subject, the only story that matters with offenders, is generally themselves. The job then is to get them to write about themselves honestly, which may mean employing a variety of the theme: a letter to oneself, from the current to the former self or from the future to the present one; a third person memoir observing themselves through the eyes of another character. The strategy has to be to lead the participant to a place where they can see that theirs isn’t the only story that matters; that other peoples’ stories matter just as much as their own. Memoir is a necessary precursor for effective restorative justice work: because the RJ process isn’t just about listening it’s about explaining as well. Autobiographical work with offenders isn’t about oneself alone, but about oneself in relation to others. The wider story of which we are all a part.