On Emigration, Invasion and Rehabilitation

I‘ve been in Australia and I’ve been in New Zealand. In Australia I was catching up on family and the First Fleet. In New Zealand I was running writing workshops at Arohota Women’s Prison. I’ve been laying the ground for future research on the impact creative writing can have on reducing re-offending, both positive and negative. I plan to compare practice in the UK with work in New Zealand. If one is going to do an international project, one should push the boat out (to the North and the South Island hopefully). One thing that seems apparent to me already is that those who manage arts work in prisons in the UK should look to Arts Access Aotearoa as a model organisation in this field. They coordinate, prepare and support artists working in custody, ensuring a level of security and quality. My visit over the three days was organised by their prison arts advisor Jacqui Moyes and it couldn’t have been better organised.

For a capital city Wellington is comfortably small. It was windy, weathered and compared to Sydney, cheap. Then so is Kensington and Chelsea. I was made welcome and I was kept busy. First off I was interviewed about my work on Radio New Zealand on the morning show Nine to Noon (see link for recording). My work is about using writing with prisoners for all the obvious benefits: literacy, expression, for the love of writing and the craft but principally about challenging pro criminal thinking; using memoir to examine not just who you are but what you have done, to yourself and to others, because we become aware of ourselves from what we have done to others. And it’s about doing this work to support the work of probation, psychology, prison officers and education staff. If I am working with a house breaker I start with his or her story, unrelated to offending, usually childhood memoir work told in the first person present tense. Gradually we move on to story telling and the creation of characters. Then I return to memoir asking them to think of a specific burglary. I have worked with hundreds of burglars in and out of prison and in my experience to one degree or another, they read the houses they enter. They construct outlines of individuals and families through belongings, through clothes, even the food in your fridge. To some extent they think about what they have done, or rather it can haunt them a little. It is an involuntary process rather than active consideration because if you are committing crime or considering it as career move, the first thing you must do is rid yourself of consideration for others. Conscience is fatal; it makes for hesitation, for lack of resolve and for getting caught. So one has to switch it off. My work is in part about attempting to resurrect it. So I get my writers to create the inhabitants of the houses they stole from; detailed biographies, imaginary emotional and psychological histories. Then we put them in conversation before and after the burglary and also during, in dialogue with the writer as distressed holograms. This, one lad at HM YOI Lancaster Farms told me, was the hardest thing he had ever been asked to do in five years in prison. At the end of this process there may be more chance of entering into a restorative justice process.

After the radio interview I was treated to a breakfast reception at Arts Access Aotearoa chaired by Executive Director Richard Benge. (Indeed throughout my time in Wellington I was generously treated to food and drink). I then ran a training session for around twenty participants including prison writers, probation officers, Corrections staff and staff from Victoria University. I took them through some of the exercises I take prisoners through, from first contact writing warm-ups to the voices of their victims. One or two acknowledged that they would find my objectives, difficult, awkward. I do. But for me the purpose of writing with prisoners has always been to assist in the process of making them less likely to offend, and this is one of the ways we do this. The other issue that was raised was levels of literacy amongst prisoners as a barrier to writing. It is true that low literacy is an obstacle, but one that isn’t insurmountable. In the UK at least, literacy levels amongst prisoners is not as low as many believe. Prisoners tend to come from poorer, socially and economically excluded areas and when you compare their levels with the average for their communities, they are actually higher than most, precisely because they have been in prison, been to education and written and read more than they would on the out. The issue again begs the question, what is the writing for? Much of the writing produced (under supervision) is potent and direct. Hardly any of it is publishable. The point of prisoners writing is to get them to take an active part in their own desistance journey. Rehabilitation is not something that the state can do to people. That’s punishment and it has its place. The rest is trickier. The state can’t send someone round to burgle the offender’s house to show them how it feels. (Statistically the offender is more likely than most to already know. Burglary produces burglars). What we can do is to facilitate meetings with victims and in preparation for that, or regrettably as a substitute for that, we can try to get them to inhabit and author a victim’s story. My PhD will be to see if any of this works. I’ve been doing it for ten years or more and anecdotally I believe it does, but to get a doctorate Sheffield Hallam will want more than my own memoirs.


Michael Crowley workshop2 sm

Photo courtesy of Iona McNaughton Arts Access Aotearoa

In the evening I went to a meeting of restorative justice practitioners. I was an RJ practitioner for seven years and the first thing one is told in one’s training is that New Zealand is the home of restorative justice, that it is integral to Maori culture. The team there are dealing in early intervention work and were encountering exactly the same problems that I did when I started in youth justice: having a small window of time pre sentence to facilitate the possibility of a victim offender meeting. And more profoundly, that participants in restorative meetings often lack the desired language, a means to express themselves sufficiently well enough to make the face to face meeting worthwhile. It is a process that requires a direct and honest language. Language like a window. Language that people don’t often have. It was this that spurred me into creative writing with children and  young people in youth justice. Their absence of an ability to express contrition or explain their actions was often deemed as a lack of conscience. The result of my discussion with Wellington practitioners was that I would design some writing exercises for both offenders and victims that they will be encouraged to do as part of the two-hour session and in their own time. The hope is that they will be better prepared, better able to express themselves in any face to face meeting.

Arohata Womens’s Prison on the outskirts of Wellington was built in 1944 and holds 88 minimum to high security women. From my understanding it is used to visiting artists of one form or another but they don’t have a writer in residence.  I spent most of the morning working with six women in the library. Using exercises I wanted to prove to them that they could write creatively and thus I wanted them to have a piece by the end of the session. We began with an automatic writing exercise – all of them thinking of a particular morning, responding quickly to ten nouns, light, sounds – all the senses – their hands, their hair, their memories of love and home. I then asked them to think of five actions they have done with their hand that morning. Put all this to one side and then to write a list of seven emotions and chose one and think of a time when it was dominant. I continue to tell them where and how to dig; setting them parameters but also allowing things to be open. The women were eager and diligent and concentrated. By the end of the session we had two poems that were virtually good to go and the bones of four others. And what was more important they wanted to write more and were enthusiastic about getting a regular creative writing anthology together.

Then there was an unexpected impromptu workshop in Arohata’s drug treatment unit. Jacqui Moyes and I walked down the long, forbidding corridor and were met in a room the size of a drama studio by twenty to thirty women who greeted us with traditional song and dance. When they finished they looked at me expectantly. So I told a story.

‘Once upon a time there was a man made of glass. He was famous where he lived. Everyone knew who he was. Most people were scared of him. The Glass Man liked this and called it respect. People feared him because with one wave of his hand he could sever them into pieces. Some children saw their reflections in him and dreamt of being like the Glass Man. But the older people didn’t admire him; they could see straight through him and knew he was empty and hollow. They would recoil in horror whenever he took out his blood stained money. Even the dogs looked away in disgust. So the Glass Man looked instead to the children. They gave him his power he thought. Then one day, one of them crept up behind him and smashed him into pieces.’

It was written by a young prisoner from Manchester who was a drug dealer and who came up with an allegorical way of describing the only occupation he’d ever had. I ran with the theme and asked the women if their addiction were an animal, what would it be? ‘A snake!’ Why? ‘Because it creeps up on you.’ ‘It lives in a hole.’ ‘Sheds its skin.’ ‘Puts poison into me.’  In English jails there is always someone in the room that fights me, whose only effort is disruption. I waited for them, but there wasn’t anyone in the room like that in Arohata. Since everyone had AWP stamped on their clothing, I asked if anyone could think of a way of using the letters to title a writing magazine and the answer was ‘Arohata With Pride.


There was another reason why I was in that part of the world. I have become a grandparent and we had the pleasure of meeting Rosa Francesca at three months into the world. She is the daughter of my stepdaughter and I have little experience of babies and infants but in the four weeks we were there I’m convinced Rosa took on new mannerisms and expressions, or perhaps it was just what one sees when you look at someone so much.

Each time I go to Australia I become more interested in its story. By that I mean its ‘European’ story and their early contact with Aboriginal people (who’d already been there some sixty thousand years); the story of the early fleets and the first one of 1788 in particular. The future of an entire continent, and consequently the future of entire Peoples hinged on decisions, quite random at times, on the deeds and disasters of a very small number of individuals, almost in touching distance to us today. I’ve just finished reading the absorbing ‘The Commonwealth of Thieves’ by Thomas Keneally. Through Keneally’s writing we can empathise with the first Governor, with convicts and Eora people alike. Through his research we see how chance and endurance shaped the last two hundred years of Australia. Only a week after the eleven ships of the First Fleet anchored at Botany Bay the French sailed in. There was a kind of stand-off without guns being pointed (they had just come out of the Seven Years War). Then fleet leader and future first Governor Arthur Phillip sent a boat to the French to say “will give you what supplies you need to go home” and the French replied “likewise”(sic). It is partly matter of timing that Australian’s first language isn’t French today (A relief no doubt to Tony Abbott). Apparently the proposed name of the British settlement was to be ‘Albion’ but then Phillip personally decided that it would be called Sydney. His reasoning was that the Home Secretary Lord Sydney was less likely to forget and let perish a settlement named after him. And perish it very nearly did. The convict James Ruse was a former farm-hand and given the job of the ploughing the first farm but failed to produce anything but more seed in the first year. So the flag-ship Sirus was sent to Cape Hope to get more supplies. Stripped of guns and its decks cleared its small half-starved crew circumnavigated the globe at 40 degrees; something not easily attempted today. Half the crew died through scurvy, the 3rd Lieutenant Maxwell was driven insane and had to be restrained. But ultimately they returned with provisions to head off starvation.

The establishment and the survival of the colony was an extraordinary achievement of endurance. It has the feel of The Tempest. However it is of course complicated and marred by the fact that the original inhabitants of the continent saw it as an invasion. And an invasion it was. Not in the D Day Landings or 1066 sense but more in the sense of a century long land grab backed up by muskets and small pox. Year after year the British parcelled up land and gave it to convicts who’d served their sentences. Many of them murdered any Aboriginal who put a foot on ‘their’ property. In the decades that followed, skirmishes became a war became massacres. In Tasmania what was known as The Black War at the time was used as an example to define genocide in the 1940’s. On 1 December 1826, the Tasmanian Colonial Times declared that: “We make no pompous display of Philanthropy. We say this unequivocally SELF DEFENCE IS THE FIRST LAW OF NATURE. THE GOVERNMENT MUST REMOVE THE NATIVES—IF NOT, THEY WILL BE HUNTED DOWN LIKE WILD BEASTS, AND DESTROYED!” It is not surprising that not everyone shares an admiration for the resolve of the first settlers.

For these reasons it is important that the story is dragged out into the light and I am surprised Hollywood hasn’t got hold of it. The seminal history of transportation is Robert Hughes’s ‘The Fatal Shore’, the seminal stage play is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good.’ Some seven years ago, when I’d just taken up residency at HM YOI Lancaster Farms I worked on the play with a group of young prisoners. The culmination of the process was the visit of the company from Theatre by the Lake who were then in rehearsal for a production. It wasn’t hard to find lads to work with. It never was. But a drama about Botany Bay appeals. Prisoners I’ve noticed are generally interested in the history of prison. You would be, it connects to a wider humanity and reinforces a sense of injustice, misplaced or otherwise since the further back one goes the more arbitrary and cruel punishment was. In reading the script (and I had to get lads to play more than one part because I simply couldn’t control a cast the size of Wertenbaker’s) I soon realised how little lads knew about the history but also how interested they were. So we put the scripts to one side and sat down and I gave them photocopies of a few pages from Hughes. (Technically unlawful I know). As much as acting, if not more, the project became a history course through a play. It was in fact the first time I’d done any drama in a jail and there was something else I realised. There was one lad in particular who struggled to read and consequently wouldn’t go to education but who loved acting even if meant stammering over the script. During the six or seven weeks his reading  noticeably improved. It was the fact that the text was a drama that helped. It gave him something to do as well to think about. And of course he was part of a story. Only once did another lad express any frustration about his poor literacy because drama is essentially collaborative – which is another reason why people who behave anti-socially should be introduced to it.

There are twenty known contemporary accounts of the First Fleet but only one by a convict. So I have started taking it upon myself to imagine their voices (see below) starting with the Cornish farm-hand James Ruse and seventeen year old Catherine Crowley “sentenced to seven years’ transportation for stealing sheets and clothes, valued at one pound eleven shillings, from the house of her employer.” There were more than twenty Crowley’s transported during the period, most to Van Diemens Land. Some were Irish rebels most were thieves. It’s not even a common name, what is it with us and imprisonment?

Jacqui Moyes told me that in Maori culture they believe that we all walk backwards into the future: ka mura ka muri. We do so looking upon the people before, the dead, our ancestors. Maori people ask ‘where’s your folks from, your mother’s people?’ They’re right. It’s true. We owe the dead. We owe it to children to tell them of the things they did for us as well as the foul ups. And we owe it to ourselves to think upon on own pasts. I sensed the women in the library in Arohata needed to do this. As William Faulkner said, ‘The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.’ I’m currently trying to tune in on 1788.

I James Ruse

Now of Parramatta
ten miles up-river of the famine
have harvested two hundred bushels from thirty acres,
have served my sentence.

The farm hand from Launceston
has fed convicts and marines alike
ploughed out his life priced at two silver watches
at Bodmin Assizes.

The Governor sickens and worsens.
He has blundered, even with the hangings.
Treated marine and convict alike,
savages better.

I carried his Lieutenant to the shore,
scarlet and glittering on my back,
I James Ruse, the first to face the land
dreamed of Devon

where the grit stone tore the skin
between my fingers till my hands
bled silver, harsher than the grasses
of the Parramatta.

One day the Governor will go
and I will continue to plant and grow.
I have my eyes on the Hawkesbury River,
on horses and hogs.


Jane Fitzgerald

Just the shine off them, the blackberries of home.
Bread dipped in butter, and chestnuts and eels.
My mouth is sore from fancying.

But I am not at sea now. I have my rations
Without the pleasure of marines. They are ill-tempered.
Vermin won’t leave them be.

One who knew me on the Charlotte
Struck another for two words to me.
He’s to be lashed for that. Won’t know his coat from his back.

After that I will go into the woods
Lie all night in the dews with a highway robber.
A mutinous man.

We make free out here, of the land and the sea
Of each other. Marriage means nothing.
Seven or eight die each day.

There is talk of taking men to some island
Weeks east. So red and rocky the earth
So fevered men behave.

They watch the lightning off the bay,
Or look behind the camp up-river,
To China they say.

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