Diamonds in the dust

Last week one of the men chose a photograph of a person standing with arms aloft on a mountain that I’d found on the internet, then wrote a piece about the meaning of freedom. It was thoughtful and heart-soaringly poetic, with images of birds in a clear sky evading the claws of gravity.  This week a mild-seeming man read out the powerfully simple poem he’d just written about his battles with anger. These were just two occasions recently where I’ve had to try not to cry.

Over the past month I’ve been doing creative writing with inmates at a local prison.  How I came to be here, like many of the best things in life, is a complete accident. I blogged elsewhere about how I applied for a job in a library, that happened to be at Her Majesty’s pleasure. I had no idea before the tour that the prison aspect of the job would appeal to me so much. When I didn’t get the job, I contacted the prison education department and volunteered.

This is a Category B prison, and to get to the education block you have to pass through a total of fifteen locked doors and gates in high, barbed wire fences. I was assigned to Michael, a literacy teacher there, for a shadowing period. Michael teaches the most able men, one of whom has a history degree and another who is a barrister.  Michael’s a few years away from retirement and has only been working in a prison setting for a short time, but I would never have known that if he hadn’t told me. The men love him, and his measurable results are impressive; the ones that can’t be measured, even more so.

The men are strongly encouraged to take classes. It earns them privileges and if they refuse to take part, they lose them.  Some really want to make the most of their time in prison, to give them a better chance of succeeding on the outside. Others can’t see the point. From what I’ve seen, Michael convinces most of these naysayers – but more of that later.

On my first morning I was nervous.  The men drift in from nine and most came to shake my hand, while others ignored me.  Some asked me about why I was there. Michael jokingly deflected the questions he thought I might not want to answer, but it felt OK.  They are just men, all individuals, not a hostile wall that I might have imagined. It does take them a while to settle down. They are locked up for a long time and Michael said he expects a bit of noise in the first half an hour.  Sometimes they have just rolled out of bed and seem barely awake.

At twenty-one Sean is the youngest in the class, and the loudest. The oldest is a sixty-five-year old man called Reuben – the barrister. His intellect far outstrips everyone else’s in the class, including mine and Michael’s, but he’s there to keep his formidable brain active.  Yan, someone I’ve developed a soft spot for, is one of a number of the men who have confided in me that they write poetry.  Yan is back in prison for the second time in a year.  He told me how his mother cried when she found out, but he sends her verses and she loves that.  Rudy told me on my first morning about his ten year old daughter – ‘a right tomboy’ who he adores and misses.  In total, there are about twelve in the class but they’re rarely all there. They might have a court appearance, the dentist, doctor or the barber. Sometimes having broken prison rules, they’ve lost the privilege of attending the class.

On that first morning I was supposed to be observing, but because I was there, Michael used an idea that had been a huge success elsewhere in the prison, that of re-writing well-known fairy tales. I have to admit I was dubious, but within minutes these tough men were calling out the names of stories they remembered. It was a long list.  The idea was to take a story and change the details, make themselves the hero, or someone they knew – to re-write the story as their own.

Sean shouted from the other side of the room. ‘You’re going to help me, aren’t you miss? I can’t do this on my own.’ Michael rolled his eyes, ‘he’s quite capable of doing it himself,’ he assured me, but didn’t stop Sean when he came over to sit next to me.  In a few minutes, I heard why he was in prison, and he’d started a story based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where Goldilocks was a burglar friend of his, called Sammy. All the best ideas were Sean’s, and he got really into the story, which involved TV sets, safes and a relaxing spliff. During this, one of the officers came in from outside the classroom and asked Sean very roughly for his name and whether he was supposed to be in the class, before leaving again.  Sean wanted extra time to finish up his story and proudly read it out, to great applause.  Reuben also based a tale on Goldilocks.  He described her as a sentient moon orbiting a planet at a perfect distance, adopting the Buddhist ideal of the middle way. Yan’s reworking of The Three Little Pigs, had the wolf as a retiring police chief determined to go out in a blaze of glory, and the pigs as three brothers loyally defending their home.

At 11.30, the doors are unlocked, the men are body-scanned for concealed bits of metal (pencil sharpeners, paper clips etc.) and it’s back to their cells for lunch.  In the euphoric lull of a successful first class, the officer came back. ‘Were you alright with that inmate sitting so close to you, miss?’ I was a bit shocked.  Should I not have been?  ‘Well, we checked his record for sex offences and you’re alright.’ I hadn’t felt threatened. Sean had told me in some detail of the charge against him which involved GBH and a kidnapping.  Nothing to worry me there, I thought. The officer’s vigilance was reassuring I suppose, although it felt a but heavy-handed.

That’s the odd thing.  I’ve had five sessions each of two and a half hours with the men now, and in between these sorts of reminders, they’re just students. You talk about creative writing and other stuff, but you don’t ask what they’ve done.  Everyone says it’s hard not to judge if you know, as much as you think you won’t.  Sometimes these tough guys are just little boys, like they were with the fairy stories.  One of the men, Farndon, asked me whether I knew any “get well” songs in French, because there was one he remembered his Mum used to sing – she was from the Congo, originally.  I had never imagined when I started doing this that I would be singing the French lullabies I knew to a prisoner. His face lit up when I sang the right one, and you could see the child right there.

It’s hard as a human being not to be touched and I guess that the only way I can explain why this project is giving me such a buzz.  For a lot of these guys, you can’t really sink much lower in life than to have ended up in prison.  Your life is strewn with people, I can only imagine, who have given up on you.  My first morning was Iqbal’s second class with Michael. He came in half asleep and Michael joked with him. “You don’t do mornings, do you Iqbal?”  Iqbal didn’t answer. He just lay his head on the desk until his friend came in, then sat with his back to Michael talking to his friend for the remainder of the class. Last week was my final time shadowing Michael, and he wanted to tackle poetry.  It wasn’t one of our best sessions, which I kind of anticipated although some decent poetry was written and talked about. Iqbal sat next to the guy who wrote the poem about anger, and he made up a beat box rhythm to go with it. He laughed off his first disastrous attempt, and had another go.  He seems a different man to the one I met a month ago.  He takes part, and is lit up.

I’m going to miss that class, but I am so grateful to have had the wise and compassionate Michael to guide me in these early days. His broad smile and twinkling eyes are the opposite of authoritarian and yet he has the deep respect of the men, because he in turn treats them with respect.

‘He’s a legend,’ so many of them have told me, ‘the best teacher I’ve ever had.’ It’s incredibly sad that they had to end up in prison to find him.