Saturday, 28 March 2009

Jailbird - the final part

So what Is a Writer in residence?
If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that question I’d have enough money to fund such a post in every UK prison.
But as it stands there are just 20 of us scattered across the UK.
And less than 100 across the globe.
So what DO we do?
The short answer is we raise self esteem through writing.
From poets to playwrights and dramatists to journalists we share one thing - a passion for the written word.
We know its power to communicate, to be heard, to record, to inspire – both ourselves and others.
But if all this sounds a bit arty let me invite you to share a typical day.

It’s 8am I make my way to my office to finish the feedback I am preparing on a prisoner’s novel.
“When I write it takes me to a different world,” he says.
Next, the library where I lead the first of two weekly writing groups.
By 9.15am nine of my regular writers and a new member are here.
Today I bring in a copy of Saturday's Guradian and direct them to the Playlist section where readers send in their memories attached to song lyrics.
I encourage the group to try it out.
We carry out several writing exercises which are read out to the group.
It takes generosity and confidence to appraise another’s work honestly but the group have refined their skills in this area.
After a fair bit of laughing and singing we settle down to some serious work and Jenn, the librarian joins us.
I use lines from the song New York New York and include my memories of running the New York Marathon.
T writes about the last night at home with his wife before he was jailed linking it to a song by Genesis, Follow Me Follow You.
Jenn writes about her late grandfather who used to sing Lady In Red to her grandma when he came home late from the pub.
S arrives a little late but tells us about the song Crazy For You and a mad one night stand.
K surprises everyone with an atmospheric account of a late night drive home with a beautiful girl and the next time he hears the song he is in a sweatbox on his way to jail.
P has us all choked reciting one line from a Coldplay song played at his little brother’s funeral - "Lights go out - can't be saved."
All too soon the session is over and my new member tells me:
“I didn’t realize I had that in me.”
After the session I contact an author who is due to visit the prison soon.
Every month I invite a writer to talk about their work and past visits include poet, Jean Sprackland, novelist, Joolz Denby and childrens’ writer Joseph Delaney, who published his first book, The Spooks Apprentice, at the age of 58.
Last year Neil Caple, a former member of The Royal Shakespeare Company helped out with a four-week Drama course.
One of the prisoners on the course went on to win first prize in the Writing For Stage section of The 2008 Koestler Awards.
This man has never worked in his life and came to jail with no qualifications. Although he has since left this jail I have heard he recently started a BA (Hons) in Scriptwriting.
I spend lunchtime with the librarian and we discuss my plan to introduce “Stories Connect” into the prison.
The librarian helps me collate a carefully selected list of texts which examine a range of issues from violence to family life and drugs.
The fictional characters will help provide a vehicle for discussing choices and actions.
After lunch I visit the Therapeutic Community where I mentor prisoners working on The Link magazine, a publication produced here and distributed to every prison in the country.
The latest issue is almost finished and after making a few suggestions I leave to visit the Induction wing.
A young man has just arrived from a Young Offender's unit where he began working on his life story with the writer in residence there.
It is a harrowing story told with brutal honesty.
“Writing everything down helps me make sense of what’s in my head,” he says.
On the way back to my office I check how the multimedia unit is progressing.
A team of staff and prisoners will work together to produce a range of material from posters and books to short films and documentaries.
Finally, back at my office and on my desk is a letter sent by an ex-prisoner who worked with me some months ago.
So what does a writer in residence do? – I’ll let him have the last word.
“Your writing class was the best thing I have ever done in all my time in prison.
”I’ve noticed when I write I can address so many different things in so many different ways.
"I find the more I read and write the better I become.
" Thank You.”

If you would like to ask me any questions about my work please feel free to leave them in the comments box.


lunarossa said...

Hi Jane, From the first moment you mentioned the phrase "prison work" in your blog I've been interetsed to know what was about. Now I know. I'd have lots of questions, but all in all I think that I'd really like to read more about your experience and I'm hoping in reading a book written by you soon. How did you manage to get yourself accepted in such a male dominated (and I supposed often brutal) community? Have you ever experience some sort of aggression against you? Has any work written by your "students" ever been published? Etc etc. As you see, I could spend ages asking you questions. So you'd better write your book soon! Thanks for your very fascinating accounts. Ciao. Antonella

Alison said...

Wow, thank you for writing this series. Sounds like a very rewarding job. You've changed many lives for the better. You're amazing.

Stephanie N. said...

Jane, thank you for doing the job that you do. It's really IMPORTANT work, and I'm a happier person knowing that people like you are affecting these men's lives in such a positive way. So much of the prison experience and previous life experiences takes away these men's humanity and dignity, and you are helping them to get it back.

Stacy said...

Jane, thank you so much for sharing this! What a wonderful job you do. It must be equal parts difficult and rewarding.

Heather Bestel said...

Inspiring! Your action like your words are changing peoples' lives.
This work is so important, for you, as well as them.
There is nothing you can't achieve. But I've told you that before ;-)
much love
Heather x

Jane said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and appreciative comments.
I have been keeping a journal of my time in the prison and the changes that I have seen along with the challenges the post brings.
I think I have around 40,000 words which I will now seriously edit before putting it forward for possible publication.
Of course the content will have to be checked and double-checked for security and other issues but your comments have made me feel there is something important to say and to show about the power of creativity within the rehabilitation process.
Thank You.

Mamaoftwins said...

I think its awesome that you are changing lives and doing what you love to do. Its alittle scary where you work but I bet theres probably never a dull moment. It also amazes me how powerful the written word is. I cant wait to hear more!

punk in writing said...

Sounds like an amazing job for a writer. :)

chic said...

Jane, what you do sounds incredible and I look forward to a book version some time in the future! You really show how literature and writing can make a tangible difference in someone's life. S.

Christina Lee said...

Fabulous final post!!!

Kayleigh said...

Jane, putting aside the gripping tale (which is hard to do because it is totally compelling and well told!) what you are doing is so important. I can't begin to tell you how much I admire your work.

I know that writing has been a way thru many situations in my life, I can only imagine the metaphorical door it opens for those who have no other way out.

Your contribution cannot be overstated. Bless you.

Sewfast said...

Dear Jane,
Thank you for sharing what you do in prison. I worked as a nurse in corrections for almost 10 years, and they truly are a population that needs TLC and understanding. The first facility I worked at was a boot camp that offered a time cut for successful completion of the program. Every department was involved in the rehabilitation process and it was always interesting. Your program sounds wonderful.

Make Do Style said...

I love this post it makes me so glad I'm often accused of being a wet guardian reader - this gives me such hope for humanity and the fact it is right to inspire prisoners not write them off.

alex216 said...

I love it! Very creative!That's actually really cool.