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.

How Hard Can It Be?


Let’s have it right yeah. Prison’s too easy. It’s a laugh. A right laugh. I’d never have come to jail if there was no TV, shit food… well it’s shit now but it’s not totally shit. There’s too many privileges. If I was in charge of stopping reoffending I’d take it back to the old days. But you can’t do that no more because of human rights. If I was shitting in a bucket when I was thirteen I wouldn’t’ have come back. But it was the complete opposite.

David is ripped. Henched. His arms are waves of muscularity. He is a prison gym orderly and he has found his place in the establishment. He gets on well with officers, surfs the daily routine and maintains his frame. Curiously for a jail he is also tanned. It wasn’t always thus. David has lived around only one year of the last five on The Out and much of the rest of the time he tells me he wasn’t ‘a good lad’. He was first sent to custody when he was thirteen but from his point of view secure accommodation doesn’t really count. He is due to graduate next spring. Now I get on with the screws. The question people are asking, particularly I imagine in his home town, is has prison worked? He hasn’t committed any more armed robberies whist he’s been here, which he tells me he would’ve done had he not. He also believes it has worked for him. He has found out what he wanted to, developed his thinking and his physique and built some handy relationships. He’s had a lot of David time. He has accomplished what he set out to do when he was fifteen.

I wanted to go to jail. I haven’t said this to anyone. I knew this though from the age of thirteen. Why did I want to go there? To go to the gym, and to get massive. To meet people. People like me, on my level. Your level is different boss. Mine is game. Risky. People who will take chances. Do things other people won’t. I wanted to go to jail to learn from others. And you do learn. Learn to read people. Read strengths and weaknesses. Start off reading weaknesses. Then you compare it and you learn what strength looks like. And you get to know when people are pretending. When all your friends are older you feel like you need to catch up and the best place to learn how to do that is a prison.

I’ve worked with young men who offend for the last fifteen years, in young offender institutions and out there as well. I’ve always known custody is no deterrent for some, an acceptable outcome for others and a desired destination for a few, but I don’t think I’ve heard it so candidly put before. David came to jail partly to improve his ability in the dark arts, and partly because he thought it would be an environment in which he would mature. He describes it almost like a career move and it surprises even me. It is not an exaggeration to say that some young men in this country do opt, apply, and by default choose prison as they approach adulthood. It is where they grow up and hence they grow in a particular way. I have come to believe I can identify young men who have been to jail enough to leave its mark. Young men like David who plotted a course or those who just didn’t look beyond their next step, are arguably young men with limited horizons and an unlimited number of excuses but we must ask how this defines them and our country, because prison and society are not two different places.

Despite the spike of the riots numbers of young people entering custody and indeed entering the youth justice system for the first time have been declining. This is undoubtedly down in part to the success of multi-agency working in youth offending teams, and it is significant that so far the Coalition Government have not talked about tampering with the strategy. But we must always take a step back and compare the view, because England and Wales still have particularly high rates of youth custody, second in absolute numbers to Turkey in Europe. (1) And whilst 18-25 year olds make up one in ten of our population, they make up a third of those sent to prison. (2)

Prison can and does make people worse, sometimes involuntarily, and sometimes people actively collude. They may do so because criminality is their desired career and because they feel there aren’t too many other opportunities on The Out. The Out is increasingly difficult, confusing, demanding, yet a place where lads don’t have a place. In here, inside, I see lads return every week, acknowledging welcomes and other salutations from windows as they carry their plastic bag of personal effects to the reception wing. They sweep out a new pad, meticulously arrange their display, negotiate new acquaintances, and then settle back in to an ordered routine. They are taking a six or twelve month breather from the rest of us. This is not what prison is supposed to be for. I can remember as a court officer sitting in the cells with a fifteen year old, trying to sell him a bail package and him imploring me, I need boundaries. I want jail. I can’t cope out here. What with the charges and some unexpected theatrics on his part upstairs he got his way and was visibly relieved. I was obviously duly chastised by social services management for allowing a child to be sent to custody; as far as he was concerned it was a result and I think he felt guilty for the position he’d landed me in.

There is of course a spectrum and after David closed his memoir session I went over to a wing to catch up with another story. Steven doesn’t leave his pad much. The officer unlocks him and I lead him down to the medical room so we can get some privacy and he will feel safe. En route he surveys the wing suspiciously. I had typed up what was written the day before:

It was November. The day was cold. The sky like a darkened room. I was lying on my bed. Two days to go. I was going to get drunk when I got out. See my family. I had a stack of letters off Sarah and was going to see her. We were going to go for a meal at Wetherspoon’s. She likes the things I like. Scranning. She is kind and caring. She obeys the law. She is happy and cheery. I remember the last time we were having a meal at Wetherspoons’s. I was making her laugh. I remember we were going to see a film at her house. We were happy. The pub was packed…

The piece is about the day Steven found out he’d lost his girlfriend to an overdose. He has been harming himself one way or another for a long time. Sprint pace middle distance drinking sessions, standing outside the police station screaming obscenities until they arrest him, unpicking a screw from his bedside cabinet in his pad and digging it across his arm until the pain is released like air out of a tyre. He loves to see his work typed up and is increasingly enthusiastic in sessions.

“When they told me about my girlfriend I couldn’t say owt. I was shocked. I couldn’t take it in. Couldn’t eat.  I thought, I know I can get through this….Want me to write that down boss?”

The idea might seem prosaic, he drags a biro across a page instead of his arm, but generally, at least temporarily it works. I take him back to his pad across the expanse of the wing, he’s banged up and another lad I’d lost track of approaches me. I’ve known Jack since he was thirteen, since our youth offending team days. Seven years later he’s grown into a prison cell and two days ago tried to take his own life again. He shows me the burn on his neck and asks me if we can do some writing tomorrow.

A young offender’s institution for others is not the ball it is for David. The holiday camp that other lads describe it as. Young adults account for 20% of individuals in prison who self-harm but only 12% of the prison population. (3) Most lads do say they find The YOI too easy; that if the state made it harder they wouldn’t come back. But then most lads like to pin their offending on someone or something else. In my experience the prisoners for whom prison is a serious deterrent, for whom ubiquitous television, gym and poetry workshops won’t compensate a moment, fall into two categories. Those that are not serial offenders and are often vulnerable and those who were going somewhere on The Out; they had a career in the broadest sense. Anecdotally though both added together are in a small minority.

Prisons Minister Chris Grayling has announced that he wants the prison experience to be more austere. (4) Certainly if he continues to privatise prisons it will be because there will be less officers and more bullying. Personally I don’t think it will make that much difference if any. His measures of removing digital channels or televisions altogether won’t help us sleep more safely at night because the hard versus easy argument is a diversion. What matters inside is rehabilitation: education; restorative justice; drug and alcohol work; (writers in residence). There is plenty of evidence that interventions stop people coming back. £650 million worth of cuts to the prison service means there is bound to be less offending work on offer.

What matters on The Out is a chance of a career. Not a zero hours contract after an internship but an employer willing to invest in you as a person. Youth unemployment for 16-24 year olds is running at 21%. Work opens up horizons within young people. A career is who you are, not what you are. Prison appeals to the desperate and desperately lazy. With 60% of the austerity still to come, I fear a lot of the progress made in reducing youth custody in the last ten years is at risk of being undone.

NB. Written permission was granted to use the writing excerpts and names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.

(1) http://www.civitas.org.uk/crime/factsheet-youthoffending.pdf

(2)  http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/OldEnoughToKnowBetter.pdf

(3) http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/OldEnoughToKnowBetter.pdf

(4) http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/grayling-s-prison-clampdown-a-smokescreen-say-lawyers

(5) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21659738

Within These Walls


Why does liberty remind me of prison?

It’s usually the case that prisoners desire to have the things that those at liberty have. It’s odd then that from where I stand for a few days each week, in one sense, UK PLC is fast imitating a prison and we’re all becoming a little more like prisoners. In here, on the wings and the workshops, in the slow routine that’s ever changing and ever constant, social relationships were commoditised a long time ago.

So when a new lad arrives in the jail and it is obvious from his chest out, eyes ahead veneer of confidence, that he hasn’t enjoyed this world before, other lads will rally round with a little reassuring generosity. Need some burn lad? Some shower gels? Like a pot noodle or two? You see it will take a week or two before his canteen allowance arrives, before his loved ones who cried in court but are now glad of the break, can put some money into his account; so a little credit is a blessing. And of course he doesn’t refuse because he wants so much to melt in, to become like everyone else. He begins to think it’s not all that bad. I can do jail. Then a fortnight later when he gets his canteen, his meagre wages for doodling or bench pressing, the creditors come calling and the new lad is only too happy to pay; except they want two of everything. Or double. Double bubble. That’s the first rule of friendship in jail. You pay twice. Pity they don’t tell you that during induction.

It could be worse of course (it can always be worse); he could have moved into a pad (cell) that comes with a debt, because the last inhabitant, despite the best efforts of persuasion, didn’t manage to pay off what he owed. And you can’t move pads because who would want yours? Like anywhere else, negative equity in jail is arbitrary. The unlucky occupant will possibly try and trade their way out of the situation and all things tangible and intangible are commodities in a prison.

Violence is a commodity, a service that is often outsourced and there is bound to be someone on the wing who wants someone else slapped, a biro thrust into a particular eye; but it is a currency for which one needs insurance. Jeopardy also, though it is more likely to be something that is forced upon you. You might be ‘offered’ to secrete a phone, a SIM card, drugs or a weapon in your pad by someone who more obviously has use of them. If you’re relatively literate you could help write to all manner of correspondents: lawyers, girlfriends, even victims. If another lad is on a victim awareness course the culmination of which is writing to one of his victims, you could be his contrition. Phones change hands for hundreds of pounds (transferred by BACS), chargers, SIM cards, tobacco, trainers, a girl’s phone number; whatever can be moved, whatever is wanted. Officers do their best to tackle the subversive market, to enforce the regime of sanction and reward, but it is impossible to eliminate. Lads will be given warnings for bullying and bullying it often is, but they don’t see it quite like that, they say… it’s jail, it’s what I need to do to get by.  

Staff are also potential customers and suppliers. It starts with a mobile number pressed into your palm. At the other end is a girl, always a girl I’m told. She asks you if you want to meet in a pub and the money is up front in cash. Then all you need to do is make the delivery. Leave the phone or whatever in the laundry. Give a nod to the wing cleaner. Some prison officers have changed uniforms, changed location on the wing because they phoned that girl. Maybe they asked her for more money after a few deliveries, not realising that they were also now the property of prisoners. So they were traded in to the security department, for a cleaner’s job or a new pad.

A few years back a contestant from The Apprentice offered to visit the jail to provide  entrepreneurial advice to the prisoners. There was a depressing degree of celebrity anticipation as public funds were handed over for her gig. When you consider that in one episode of the programme Lord Sugar remarked of a contestant “That woman would step over her dying grandmother to make a sale – I want her on my team” I thought it was a bad and paradoxical move. Many lads aren’t shy of entrepreneurial spirit, particular the heroin dealers, it’s moral reasoning and self-restraint they need but alas A.C. Grayling isn’t nearly as sexy. Perhaps the two worlds, the two programmes could meet in the other direction, with ex-prisoners and even prisoners using the BBC format to launch the avaricious on their way with enterprises legal and barely legal.

Sadly it seems to me that not only television but public life is beginning to imitate facets of prison mentality, of wing thinking: Eric Pickles’ brainwave for people to rent out their driveways; flyers put through doors suggesting people avoid the bedroom tax by fostering children; Vince Cable’s zero hour contracts are good for you homily (he’d sell double bubble to a jail-head); G4S claiming money for tagging people no longer with us, like the ghost in a debt ridden cell. And of course when the contractor or the politician is questioned about this, the answer always is… we live in a market place.

There is something revolutionary about the buying up of things we already own, of people. But in the end it reaches a Darwinian crisis and there is nothing left but ourselves and perhaps not as much of that as there used to be. One of the things that young lads tell me they hate about prison the most is other prisoners, that you can’t trust anyone; everyone is on the make, watching their backs. Then they leave. Then they come back.

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.