Thursday, 26 March 2009

Jailbird - Part Two


So what happened next?
As soon as I got back I applied for the job and a month later I found myself on a tour of the jail prior to an interview.
It was a lovely sunny June day outside and I wondered what I was doing as I allowed myself to be taken through the grey mechanical gates into a buffer zone before being led through a series of locked double doors.
Believe me I know why nerves jangle - it's the same echoing sound the barred gates make as they bang tightly shut behind you.
But I digress. I got the job.
I didn't meet any prisoners that day but the panel of four interviewers was scary enough.
Still it was another four months before I had to start work - plenty of time to get used to it.
The months flew by and as summer turned to autumn I attended an intense seven-day Induction Course where we were taught the Do's and Don'ts of prison life.
I met the other seven writers who would be starting at jails across the country. They included novelists, poets, dramatists and film-makers. I felt a fraud. These were real writers. What was I doing there?
I soon found out.
These are my diary entries from my first few days in prison.

Security Check – The day before I start

I arrive five minutes late due to a mix-up. As I approach I hear the phrase “fluffy stuff” and assume they are talking about me.
I walk into an airless cream room to see two officers from Security leading the group.
The session consists of various need to know edicts. It is a cold, clinical presentation. Even the ice breaker is cold in spirit.
We are told to make sure we report everything; be suspicious of everyone (it appears even colleagues are on that list) and don’t be fooled by the clever offenders who want to use us all for their own ends.
We are then given the cautionary tale of a female officer who was enticed over to the other side by a prisoner who she fell hook, line and sinker for. Then after a short toilet break (no drinks) we are shown an interesting array of home-made weapons. Lovely.
I learn how to minimize the chances of being taken as a hostage (make sure you sit by the door) and are generally scared witless. I start to think about novel plots. What happens to a prison officer when she loses everything? A short story at the very least. It ends. Time to fluff off.


Thursday October 5th: My first Day as Writer In Residence

After a sleepless night I arrive at the prison feeling a little anxious.
No, that's not right - downright terrified would be a better way to describe the flashes of ice cold electricity charging through my body.
I confess to my buddy (a 6ft 4in giant of a prison officer) that I am a bit nervous. Unfortunately he thinks I am nervous of the inmates but it is actually the prison staff I am most fearful of - especially after yesterday's talk.
My security check hasn't been done which means no keys of my own yet so I have to wait for an officer to open the gates every time I need to get off the wing.
I spend the whole of my first day on one wing - the TC (Therapeutic Community) where prisoners volunteer to undergo a year of therapy and drug testing.
I had emailed ahead that I wanted to do a one-off poetry workshop for National Poetry Day and Jane, a lovely prison officer manages to get an inmate to start a list. Of course there isn’t one name on the list but it is a start. There is a list.
Jane manages to drum up some support and I spend all morning on the wing chatting to inmates and get some interest - mostly I think due to the curiosity factor.
By 2pm there are seven men and me squashed into a tiny room. I don’t even have time to think about what they have done. They don’t appear threatening, just a bit rough and ready and very eager to please.
We start with some warm-up exercises and then one inmate mentions the Consequences Game which he enjoys.
We have a go.
A who was wearing B met C who was wearing D and they said E.
You know the one. But of course they include names of staff and other prisoners and most are naked or wearing gimp suits. Hilarity over, I confiscate the offending material and we move swiftly on.
But to my great surprise at the end of the session we have three collaborative poems on Dreams, two individual poems and one about Crack Cocaine.
But best of all was the response "When are you coming in again miss" "What are we doing next time? etc.
It all works out just as I imagine, not the detail, but the essence. Creative, inspiring and terrifying!!



Tomorrow: A Day in the Life of a Writer In Residence

9 comments:

Christina Lee said...

all I can say Jane is.....WOW!!! what an intriguing storyline (do I see a book/movie script in there somewhere?) Now I have had some interesting stuff happen in my days as a social worker and then teacher , but none like this....
compelling!

Modest Mom said...

I was thinking the same thing. Wow! Makes my life sound safely dull. :-)

lunarossa said...

Amazing! It must have been (and still is) thrilling, apart from your own experience, it's fantastic to render a service of this kind and do something good for human beings segregated away, probably for the rest of their lives. I think this would be great stuff for a book. I bet you've already thought about and if not I think you should. All the best. Ciao. A.

Kayleigh said...

Ok, first of all-- I think you are incredibly brave...and even tho I know this is a job, I think altruistic, too. I also think you must, MUST write a book about this...tell me you are. The details and story are so compelling and make me want MORE!

Mervat said...

To get a poetic response from the inmates so early on in the piece is such a surprise. How good did you feel? And i guess that is the reason you enjoy your job so much. You are making such a difference to these people. Good on you for sticking with it is as terrifying as describe. Do you still feel the odd tinge of fear from staff or inmates?

Stephanie N. said...

This is so amazing. You have me on the edge of my seat.

Jane said...

Christina,Annotella, Kayleigh and Modest Mon - I hope to write an account of my work based on my journal when I complete the contract. There is talk that funding of the creative arts in prisons will be vastly reduced which is such a shame as rehabilitation is a crucial part of the process and the arts allows for access into this process in a very powerful way.
Mervat - yes there is still a frission of fear but you need that to keep you on your toes. And yes it is the most wonderful feeling when you connect with another human being and are able to bring out the creative talents they didn't know they had. That is the best part of the job.

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Stacy said...

I love this!! So interesting!!