‘Are you the writing lady?’ demanded a very large man with a dirty white T-shirt and a belly that appeared to be seven months pregnant. ‘I can’t spell but I’d sort of like to send a letter to the missus.’
So began my first day of a new career. I didn’t want to want to go to prison. Not as a criminal. And not as a writer in residence. But when my first marriage ended I found myself in need of a salary as opposed to the uncertain income of a freelance journalist. I looked under ‘creative jobs’ in the advertisements of a certain national newspaper. And that’s where I saw it:
‘Wanted. Writers to bring out the literary talents of residents at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.’
This wasn’t the exact wording but you get the idea. There followed a list of prisons with vacancies, including one near the lovely home I’d had to leave. Was it a sign or an ironic reminder of how much my life had changed?
It turned out the job involved two days a week in a high-security male prison. I admit that I found myself applying more through financial desperation than any higher aspirations. During the interview, the governor asked what I would do if I was running a writing workshop and an officer ordered us to leave the room immediately as there was an emergency.
‘I’d get the men to finish halfway through their sentences so that when we returned, they could easily pick up again,’ I suggested cheerily.
‘By which time,’ the governor replied drily, ‘half the prison population might have escaped.’
I received a telephone call that night offering me the job. That’s when reality set in. Was I mad to put myself at risk by working with men who had committed headline crimes? What if some aggrieved criminal came round to the house and attacked my son?
I started my first day with fear and apprehension. My brief was to help men write in whatever way I saw fit. Since I was funded partly by the prison and partly by an outside charity, I wasn’t part of the prison’s education team. Men did not have to come to my events. I had to lure them in like a literary Pied Piper.
I began to gather ‘customers’ with one-to-one cold-call approaches. Not with a mobile as these are banned in prison but by visiting wings and asking individual men if they would write a short piece about themselves, entitled ‘A Slice Of Life’. I asked staff to do the same. I then typed these up and folded them into mini-magazines for general distribution. Staples, by the way, weren’t allowed because they could be used as ‘weapons’. (I should add that I was frisked for forbidden items before starting work. I was given the keys to the prison, however, which I wore on a belt round my waist. Failure to lock one of the many doors inside meant instant dismissal.)
‘A Slice Of Life’ turned out to be very popular. The prisoners, or students, as I preferred to call them, enjoyed reading about the officers in charge. And vice versa. The articles became a monthly publication and I soon found a willing team of men to help me do the folding. I then ran a poetry workshop, even though I hadn’t written any poems for years.
Abilities varied hugely. In one group, I had a lawyer and a young man who had never learned to read or write. He could, however, spout the most beautiful prose. The lawyer volunteered to write this down for the young man in the evenings, during community time. This seemed to help both of them. Already I was beginning to see why I’d been hired in the first place. The whole point of having a writer in residence is to promote self-esteem which, in turn, is said to reduce the risk of re-offending.
When I first started, I was shocked to find that I wasn’t going to have a prison officer with me when I ran my workshops. The nearest help, if I needed it, was the wing office where I had to sign in and out. The only form of protection was a whistle on my key belt.
One of my students, who looked like an archetypal thug, was actually a softly-spoken man. He informed me that he had knifed a man in a pub and then rung the police to say what he’d done. He was in for life. Until seven years ago, he could neither read nor write. However, a prison officer had taught him to do both. The result? Wonderful poetry in a faultless twirly script. All the men had to do jobs in prison — cleaning, cooking, laundry. This student worked in the kitchen. One day, I was disappointed not to find him in class. ‘Been shipped out, miss,’ piped up someone. ‘He’d been putting bird poo in the ice cream.’
I only felt vulnerable on a handful of occasions. One man kept asking me to look at his short stories and would hover closely while I read them. I didn’t like knowing what my men had done because I felt this might colour my preconceptions. I also found that it was against unwritten prison conventions to make enquiries. But there was something about this particular prisoner that gave me the creeps. So one night at home, I googled his name. I can’t go into detail because his crime was so specific that he could be identified. But I will say that I always made sure that future ‘one to ones’ with him were held in open corridors.
There is a great deal of untapped talent in prison. Again and again, I watched a light go on in my students’ eyes when others applauded their work. At a recital I organised, one of my men read an extremely graphic account of how he had been sexually abused as a child by his father’s friends. (This was not an uncommon story.) He then went on to describe how this had made him into an abuser himself, later in life. When he got halfway through, I broke out into a cold sweat, wondering if we’d gone too far. At the end, there was a shocked silence. Then a hardened prison officer got out a large handkerchief and blew his nose. I was told later that the recital had ‘helped to break down barriers’.
Another project was inspired by a chance saying by one of the prison officers. ‘When men come here,’ he told me, ‘they either discover the gym or God.’ His words stuck in my mind. Then one rainy day when I was walking past the chapel, an idea came to me. I asked both men and staff to write down a prayer or a saying that helped them get through the day. I tried to get a variety of religions and faiths. And if someone didn’t have one, I asked them to write a sentence that might help others. The result was a properly bound volume called The Book of Uncommon Prayer.
By the end of my second year, my initial ‘horror’ at getting the job had been replaced by what was almost an addiction. When I was in the prison, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. It took me at least a day to ‘come down’ from my nervous energy when I had finished my stint for the week. Then I would panic about going back until I was actually ‘inside’ again. Once in the thick of the job, I was all right. It was a pattern that is hard to explain unless you are in that environment.
But after three years, I felt I was in danger of becoming a prison writer, and resigned. I stay in touch as a life-story judge for the Koestler Awards, which are given annually to men and women in prisons and secure hospitals. And my experience also gave me a new writing voice. After writing historical novels for years I embarked on a psychological thriller. I couldn’t have written it without having tasted prison.
I often wonder what happened to some of my loyal men. I recently received an email from a student who has now been released. He told me how writing his life story had made him determined to ‘turn things round’. He has now done this, both in terms of career and family. I’m not allowed to reply personally to anyone but I asked the prison to do so on my behalf. Looking back, I am both humbled and astounded at how a simple job advert changed my life and literary voice and also, I hope, helped others to write as well.
You might also like:
Penny Hancock speaks with John Greening about discovering dark inner places as a crime writer, inhabiting different characters, real-life story inspirations and her writing approaches and motivations.