Prose Goes to Prison and Sets Words Free.

The power of words behind bars.

When we think of Prisons, we would be forgiven for turning to our preconceived images spawned by a thousand films, books and TV programs. Oppressive, grey, depressing; long corridors echoing tin cups hitting the bars that hold scary people at bay.

As much as we tried to shake it, this is exactly what we expected when Sammie and I (Paul) visited Peterborough Prison a few weeks back. We had approached them with the idea of incorporating writing challenges into the rehabilitation process there, and in prisons the world over. The idea was to set weekly writing tasks, the results of which we would pick up and post in theprose.com in the Letters From Prison Portal.

We would then encourage Prosers to subscribe to that portal and give feedback on the weekly offerings from the inmates. This would then be fed back to them with the view to encouraging them to grow and hone their creative writing; which in turn should prove a lesson in self-development that would relate hugely to ‘the outside world’.

It’s a well-documented theory that writing helps with mental health issues, so it wouldn’t be a huge leap of logic to take that to prisons where we felt safe assuming that people would welcome the release and any creative output we could bring their way. A little digging online showed us that there has been and still are schemes dotted around the world with elements of what we intended to convince the prison to allow us to do.

They agreed to see us, and we were stoked. We were also nervous because of Escape from Alcatraz, The Green Mile, and the Shawshank Redemption to name a few. Who wouldn’t be? It was a Prison!

When we drove up to HMP Peterborough, we were struck by how imposing it was. I suppose that’s the point. As a deterrent, it works when you gaze solemnly at it. The security getting in was, unsurprisingly, stringent. ID, fingerprints, photos, metal detectors and then what seemed like a thousand doors that Wayne (Head of Learning) and Will (Education Manager) took us through, bookending us each time with large sets of keys unlocking and locking them each time.

As we walked through the many security doors, they furnished us with some details of the prison.

It is the only mixed gender prison in the UK, with over 950 males and over 250 females. The prison is mirrored when it comes to the two gender sides, with many managers working in both. It is a place run with respect for the residents, using the carrot method rather than the stick. As Wayne pointed out, they are already there, incarcerated and being punished. What they then try to do is turn them round and return them to civilization a better person having learned and grown. They’ve won when they don’t see them return to the prison through offending again. Where the prison had previously been underperforming, their positive outlook had propelled them into the top five in the UK.

We were naturally impressed. This only grew when we finally reached the education center and were shown around. A calm and positive atmosphere washed over us as we were shown the classrooms, then the very well stocked library where we were told that they do not censor books. Residents were walking about freely, having proven themselves trustworthy and the right to be there, purely to better themselves.

Prison Staff and Residents.

We were then shown the art rooms, where old books are upcycled into art and practical piece of beauty such as birdhouses covered in ages of books. They also design greetings cards, which are sold through local artisan shops; the proceeds of which help the prison. Their business development side is there to generate income and 33% of everything they receive goes to charity. We were blown away.

Expecting a hard sell, we then sat down, mentally preparing ourselves for a hard sell. Not at all. They were fully on board with the weekly challenges as well as creative writing workshops and anything else we were prepared and able to do. The decision was made to roll it out for a few weeks to the female side initially, and then the male side. Thereafter, there are prisons throughout the UK that the model would work in as well as in America; where Prose is also based.

Our first week meeting the ladies was amazing. Initially we spoke with the over 50s group in the library, explaining what we intended to do. Many questions and excitement ensued. Then we did the same in the English class which was being held next door, and the enthusiasm was even more impressive.

Kind words go a long way.

And so we set them their first and second week’s tasks for the Letters From Prison Portal. We had such a great time telling the residents about you all, about Prose, along with the power of language and what we can all achieve with words. The ladies expressed a want to read your words too, so this is something we will be looking at doing in the coming weeks, also.

Their first week’s task was to write a diary for seven days, in whatever creative form they liked; traditionally, in the form of a poem, limerick, rap, whatever they feel most comfortable with. Last week we collected their diaries and posted them within the letters from Prison Portal (here and here). This week we are doing the same with their second week’s task, which is a creative version of a weeklong diary; where the only limit is their imagination.

We’ve just returned from picking up their work. We’ve gained even more ladies and will probably being seeing more next week as word spreads of this lovely thing we are all part of. Some of the work we have seen today is awesome, but not as awesome or as hugely gratifying as watching them read your comments on their pieces last week. They were surprised, touched, emotional; and your comments, to a degree, brought down the bricks that enclose them. Albeit temporarily.

We will be posting more of these up as we can type them. If you don’t already, please subscribe to the Letters From Prison Portal and read what these ladies are writing. They are sponges, they want to absorb knowledge and grow.

What we really need from you all is quality feedback and suggestions so that each time we visit, we can give them your feedback. We really have a huge opportunity here to change lives and we hope that you will all get stuck in and help us with this. If any of you would like to volunteer some time towards this project, please reach out to us.

If this goes to plan, and works, we will be rolling this out all over the UK and the US. Watch this space for more news about that, more schemes and links to interesting and related stuff!