Teaching Writing and Art in Jail

A talk given for Confer: The Masks of Masculinity – Exploring the Links Between Male Vulnerability and Violence (18th May 2019) – at Foyles Bookshop. 

In the early years of this century I started teaching creative writing and art in prisons: first at Wandsworth, then at Wormwood Scrubs, and finally at Brixton. Having taught for many years on BA and MA courses in prominent art schools (at Goldsmiths, in Sydney and in Cardiff), I was qualified to teach art, and, as a published poet, I had taught many creative writing classes, so I looked forward to this new challenge. For some forty years, I had taught exceptionally gifted students, all 100% engaged in preparing for a future career. In all that time I had never realised that mine was a privileged position. The scales in front of my eyes first began to get dislodged when I commuted across London to Wandsworth Jail. My fellow commuters were 85% white. When I got to the jail, I found that the inmates were 85% black. This ratio changed when I discovered that I would, for the most part be teaching on the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit. I had not known that prisons were divided into a main body of offenders kept separate from those deemed “vulnerable” to attack or abuse by that main body. There was a larger number of white inmates among those in the vulnerable section of the jail. Many of these were “nonces” or “bacon” (gay inmates or paedophiles). Others were “bent” policemen. There was a higher proportion of middle-class offenders in this vulnerable unit. The joke that went around was, the working class does over your property, the middle does over your kids.

My weekly creative writing class included disgraced D.J.s, fraudsters and gays convicted of conventional crimes who chose to avoid the bullying that might have been their lot among the main body of offenders. The notion of the young prisoner being buggared by more seasoned cell-mates is not as common as we are led to believe. The main body of those convicted of theft, assault and other straight crimes is in general a rough but conventional crowd, churchy, easily shocked, conservative, even royalist; and among their number there are devout Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists etc. In this section, you may be picked upon if you seem ‘a toff’ or ‘a nonce’ or an atheist – so one may opt for the vulnerable section without having been convicted of a sex-crime.

I have always believed that writers need to exercise the physical act of writing, that is, to think via the movement of their hand over the page rather than to meditate on what they intend to write before starting. Therefore I conducted my prison classes just as I had my classes “on the out”. I worked on timed writing exercises, and I always wrote myself, so at the conclusion of the exercise, we all got to read out what we had written. On occasion, my teaching led to surreal experiences, such as noting, as I travelled up the escalator on my way home, that the very official voice advising me to stand on the right or to report an unattended object was the voice of one of the inmates. D.J.s are often able to pick up extra cash reading out such notices, and this was the case with one of my guys. Another time, I was asked to teach a mathematics class. Having failed ‘O’ level maths, I demurred. Oh don’t worry, said our manager. You just need to be in the room. John can teach the class. John had been a headmaster. He taught a simply brilliant class on the concept of zero. As the class ended and we left the room, I happened to notice an ancient inmate hobbling past, supported by a Zimmer-frame. What is he doing here? I exclaimed, and John replied with some exasperation, What am I doing here?

As a writer, I also believe in a great deal of play, developing a sense of juggling with words and manipulating ‘the truth’ through language, learning how to camouflage as well as how to express one’s thoughts. These exercises exerted considerable appeal for conmen. They also generated plenty of laughter, therapeutic in the grim situation that was reality on the block. And because I read out what I had written, and was subject to whatever criticism might be meted out, I was considered an equal in the class, rather than a mentor. This worked well. My class was popular and the standard of the writing was high.

Conversation sometimes touched on the group therapy sessions that had been started up for sex-offenders, thanks to the work of forensic psychoanalysts. The attitude of the inmates in the vulnerable unit was sceptical. As they saw it, it was just too easy to go along to such sessions and appear, cynically, to develop an awareness of how damaging one’s actions had been – thus securing early parole or a shortening of your sentence. It was a species of blackmail, some of them felt: say that you’re sorry, express regret, acknowledge your wrongdoing, and get off serving a number of years. There was something of the carrot on the stick about it. A ‘nonce’ might be reminded of the Catholic priest hearing confession and offering absolution.

But art and creativity may offer such remission, and back in the noughties, in general, there was more creativity on offer for inmates than there is today, when people get ‘banged up’ for much of the day. At Wandsworth, there was a thriving EDU department that hosted a fair number of cultural activities – including Synergy Theatre Company, directed by Esther Baker (still going today, it turns out, and doing a play-writing project at HMP Littlehey – as a run-up to the Koestler Awards). These awards and the annual public exhibition that is mounted remain a crucial project of arts encouragement for the prison community. Synergy also work on projects for young people at Morley College and the Jubilee Academy in Harrow.

Early in 2004, the BBC announced a contest called End of Story. Well-known authors had begun narratives. Competitors were invited to finish these. My class at HMP  Wandsworth pressed me for the entry form. I got hold of just such a document, but one of its rules was that no-one currently ‘incarcerated’ could be eligible for the prize – which entailed the successful writers appearing on television. Justifiably exasperated, Wandsworth authors persevered with their writing. Ultimately we published a chap-book, funded by Dinah Casson, the wife of Lord Moses, the eminent judge. The chap-book was entitled End of Tether and its cover and design got completed in the jail. In the spirit of the workshop, I contributed a couple of pieces of my own. The range and quality of the writing establishes that as well as ‘having form’, those doing time have content in abundance. I was gratified to see my work among such company. Several copies of this chap-book are still available.

Writing is often a matter of releasing memory, so I look for ways to trigger memories and encourage recollection. I am also an advocate of the notion that in some sense all writing is a fiction, however auto-biographical one may intend to be. Writing is also an artifice, not reality. As I see it, this difference between artifice and reality is a crucial issue and should be a major component in education. Just as a bitch shows her puppies the difference between a nip and a bite, human children need to learn the difference between fighting and mock-fighting. When such a difference is poorly grasped, it becomes all too common for some young person to get hold of mother’s bread knife and stick it into someone else. Governments downgrade the humanities on the basis that they may not lead to securing a job, as a science subject may. What is ignored is that the humanities teach citizenship. It is essential that early in our development we take part in drama, learn to act, as if we were kings, as if we were bandits, as if we were monsters. Thus we learn the difference between reality and fiction.

For the fact of the matter is, for the most part, the thought of committing a crime is an appealing idea. Were this not the case, there would be no market for most of the movies on Netflix. Distinguishing between the pleasure of the thought and the inappropriateness of acting upon that thought should be seen as one of the chief purposes of education. It is only in repressive dictatorships that the thought itself is deemed a crime. As the teaching of art subjects and the humanities has declined, so has our understanding of this crucial difference between thought and deed, with terrible consequences such as the high incidence of knife crime in our major cities.

I did not only teach the vulnerable inmates. I also taught violent inmates on ‘the main’ section of the prison.  On one occasion a very young man convicted of an extremely serious assault came to the class. That morning the exercise was as follows: you have ten minutes to write a description of the most dangerous experience you have ever had.  After ten minutes, you get another ten minutes to copy out what you have written, adding in a new sentence between each of the existing sentences. After ten minutes, look over the second version. Are there any sentences you wish to take out?  These could be either sentences from the original piece or sentences added in the second draft.  Having thought about this for five minutes, write out the piece again, as your finalised version.  Finally, everyone will read out their finalised versions to each other.

Ok, I said, you have 45 minutes, starting from now! There was total silence in the classroom. Everyone started scribbling at speed. I called out when the first ten minutes were up, and the scribbling continued. When the exercise was done, the young man in question read out, in a breathless voice, a description of a brawl in a pub in which someone had been ‘glassed’. There was a round of applause as he finished his tale. He told us that writing this piece was ‘the most exciting thing he had ever done.’ ‘The writing, you mean?’ I asked, to be sure. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘the writing.’

I felt that for this young inmate creative writing helped him deal with his own post-traumatic stress. The reality of this condition was brought home to me by my grandmother who found herself trapped in a Beirut flat in the fifties with one of her grandsons as an angry mob tried to break the door down and destroy the Brits inside. She said later that she had never seen a child so frightened. The boy went on to develop manic symptoms whenever under stress, fiddling with the combination of his briefcase for hours on end, I recall. He lives estranged from his family.

But it should be acknowledged that PTSD is not just about being the victim of violence: it also concerns the perpetration of violence. This was cunningly expressed by Diego Ribera with a picture in the exhibition recently held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The relevant picture is of the flayer of Saint Bartholomew, with the skin of the martyr folded over his left arm. In his right, he displays the knife. Most arresting are the eyes of this executioner. With these he pierces the viewer, with a violence as intense as his recent act of execution. He demands that you share in what for him must have been a righteous act. It cannot be his act alone. One senses that the man is irrevocably damaged by what he has done. This is what I also sensed about the young man who wrote about the glassing of someone’s face in the brawl. So PTSD concerns not only those who have suffered wounds, but also those who have afflicted them. This includes those who inflict wounds in an official capacity – warders, members of our armed services and “official” members of street gangs who may well be ordered to commit a lethal hit on a member of a rival gang. To be convicted is to be “branded” with a criminal record, so there is no forgiveness that wipes the slate clean. We may be sceptical of the forgiveness that attends RC confession, but it has its purpose. If you are traumatised by your guilt, serving time affords no redemption. As with all trauma, there is a tendency to repeat, as if the initial act was simply an inept rehearsal for what will be justified (and release us) if we ever get the action exactly right, which we never do. Writing the event can lift the stress (whether that of victim or inflictor) into a new perfection, that of getting the description right, rather than the act. This can help wipe the slate. The power of describing offers one of the essential transformative benefits of all art; an alchemy which is difficult to quantify in terms of certificates but is nevertheless most definitely of dynamic therapeutic use.

Another thing creative writing in the jail stimulated, obviously, was a love of reading. Most of my guys became regular users of the library. One burglar told me that he was thinking of changing professions when he got back on the out: he thought that he might like to become a librarian. Of course, the benefits of the creative courses that were on offer back in the early years of this century were completely lost on the qualification-obsessed authorities. Creative writing was phased out, with the only classes remaining being for literacy, aimed at those who could neither read nor write. Of course literacy is a matter of urgency. But the emphasis on it should never have necessitated the evaporation of creative writing courses for those who were literate. However, as it was, I was made redundant at Wandsworth, and went on to teach creative writing at the Scrubs, where I was made redundant two years later. I then went on to teach at Brixton, but by then, creativity was well on the way to being completely eroded by certification; certification of such a low standard as to mean nothing when seeking employment later. Because creative writing was so little in demand, I was also called upon to teach art. I enjoyed encouraging life-classes, getting the guys to do portraits of each other. There were lots of jokes about mug-shots. But identity got to be defined, at least in initial terms of appearance, and for many a sense of a lack of identity is often an underlying issue that leads to the criminal act as a desperate bid for an identity.

I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly law-abiding person. I enjoy smoking weed, and there are quite a few people I would be glad to see run over by a truck, so I never felt all that removed from those I taught. There but by some grace go I, was my principle response to their predicament. In the art class, I introduced my students to the notion of the grotesque. I wanted them to realise that art is not all flowers in vases. I discussed mythology, and to balance drawing from life, I asked for imagination. We drew centaurs and mermaids, and then we began inventing monsters. In the prisons, I met with a great deal of self-repression, as well as the oppression of incarceration and authority. A large number of the inmates were unable to admit unpleasantness into their thoughts, although they had been convicted of extreme unpleasantness. Here, I fell into line with the forensic psychoanalysts promoting group-therapy. I tried to suggest that there was nothing wrong with entertaining terrible images, violent ideas. But what you drew, or what you wrote about was not necessarily what you did when some occasion presented itself. Far worse than incarceration is the restraint offenders may place upon themselves that builds up intense anti-homeostatic pressure, until finally they cannot help but explode. I believe that art can help them work to release this pressure.

What definitely does not help these traumatised and vulnerable people is the curtailment of creative writing and art courses, plus the increasing diminution of association time (that is time for recreation, education and mingling with other inmates). Being banged up for long stretches can only exacerbate ennui and melancholy, leading to self-harm and suicide. This situation is made worse if you share your cell with someone who gets on your nerves, is a bully or is in some other way unsociable. The failure of the UK prison service, poor pay for officers and recruitment problems are leading to less and less association time, and this causes suffering for inmates, especially young ones who feel ever so keenly that their lives are being wasted. Remember this ennui is at the root of incarceration as punishment. In the old days, the treadmill and the crank machine, used to promulgate hard labour, were essentially devices for bringing home how one was wasting one’s time. It was this that destroyed Oscar Wilde. Books sent in as gifts are often forbidden these days and prison libraries closed, so time just presses down with its inexorable weight.

My friend Anthony Busser, formerly my boss in prison education, also points to another problem brewing up in jails with the lack of genuine humanitarian and cultural education. In his view, there are few suicidal terrorists who have not done time. Sentencing is more often than not a rush job. Note that people often express sorrow over not having been listened to in confession because the priest was in a rush. Inside, they did not feel clean when they left the confessional. It all felt incomplete. In the absence of the discourse that education should be offering, extremist religion flourishes on the wings, in all faiths and denominations; for as teachers get made redundant, self-proclaimed imams and preachers take over. Serving time themselves, they are not in the least in a rush. And as is so often the strategy for recruitment, forgiveness is on offer for all who accept the faith (a clean slate, if you like). This applies to crimes of molestation and sexual deviance as much as it does to common-or-garden felonies. With most extreme evangelists seeking a violent loyalty, no sin is unforgivable. Faith has always been inextricably linked to justification, and heaven help the young inmate banged up without association time with one zealous to exercise his religious power over the young mind sharing his cell.

In Brixton, I also explained some basic grammar in ESOL classes. But, again, literature was increasingly being done away with in order to promote literacy. Not a bad thing in itself, but by addressing the lowest common denominator, the highest common factor was sacrificed. Face it, criminality is often evidence of exceptional intelligence, an intelligence that, finding itself in constrained circumstances, seeks to better itself by any means. These means are often ingenious, if crooked. All too often, I found, in our institutions, intelligent youth got thrown on the scrap heap, to serve the pressing demands of those who could neither read nor write. I felt that art and creative writing could help intelligent criminals think better, in ways which were not necessarily anti-social. Emotional help is often offered by therapists and well-meaning helpers, but feeling is a force. You can be swayed by it to become “a better person” to “feel regret for your actions”, sure. But you can also be swayed to commit atrocities because they feel so right.

Feeling is a force, but thought is a weapon. Being able to think through where you find yourself is a useful weapon to have at your disposal. I believe creativity encourages thought, encourages self-criticism, makes a person consider their choices more carefully, whether you are trying to express yourself in a more economical way, or making sure that your sketch of a hand is just right. This is what art can offer. However, in our jails, art became proscribed. It was no longer concerned with creativity. What mattered was a piece of paper testifying to the fact that you had been able to print an image on a t-shirt (a skill a t-shirt firm will teach a new employee within the first few minutes of their employment).

My time at Brixton ended badly. I was asked to conduct a class in rapping for the sound studio. I decided to show Brixton’s extremely talented young rappers a few possibilities of metric alteration in their rhythms, and I illustrated these with some raps of my own which included phrases such as ‘screw the pigs and fuck the screws’. The rappers were enthusiastic. Unfortunately a colleague who had taken an intense dislike to me, found these lyrics of mine in a pile of papers and handed them in to the governor. I was never invited back. You could say I was thrown out of jail.

I’ve never taught female inmates, but, some years back, I did review a book called Holloway Prison: an inside story by Hilary Beauchamp – a review which I would like to conclude with here, initially because we may gain an insight into male offenders, the subject of our conference, by a brief  contrast with the female predicament, but mainly because of the observation I refer to in this review which a male inmate of the Wandsworth VPU made to me about the attitude of the press, and indeed a fairly universal tendency to glamorise jail by use of a grotesque mode to describe it, whereas the genuine horror is, as I’ve suggested, the inanity of the state of incarceration and its boredom. Hilary Beauchamp taught art in Holloway for many years. She revels in grotesque portrayal, using her nose and her ears as well as her eyes. It is emphatically a caricature of a place.  Holloway is still the largest women’s prison in Europe.  Right from the start of the book we are pitched into a Piranesi-like hellhole, where the damned inhabit circles – or, in this case, wings – as distinct from each other as those in Dante’s Inferno.  We become familiar with the wing for lifers, with the Borstal wing, the wing for mothers and babies, and ever more degraded and demented categories in dungeons deeper in the bowels of the place.

Holloway was a self-contained city, a bit like the Vatican, only less holy.  It had its own kitchen, laundries, gardens, shop, hospital, church and gym.  A works department maintained the establishment, more often than not by retrieving broken sinks thrown out of smashed windows, mopping up flood damage and reattaching toilets torn from pipes gushing putrid fluids….It was the Queendom of Holloway, just off Parkhurst Road, an independent country…

I sense that on occasion she allows the gusto with which she unleashes her descriptive powers to overdo it a bit, and certainly this enhances the dramatic effect of the book.

Shimmying their tootsies in the moonlight, the prison rats danced, playing with the detritus thrown out through the bars by the inmates.  The worst things that got flung out were the ‘shit parcels’.  No plumbing in the cells meant a choice.  If the occupant needed the loo after lock-in at night, then she had to tolerate the smell or get rid of it.  Parcelled up in socks or any other appropriate wrapping it would be flung out through the cell window into the night. Sanitary towels, red and heavy, were also lobbed through the bars and fell onto the earth below.  Unwanted food mingled in amongst it all.  The outside cleaning party, nicknamed ‘The Wombles’ attempted to keep up some standard of hygiene but it was a struggle as well as being dangerous.  At any time a missile, wet, soggy, solid or liquid could fly past or even hit those poor cleaners.

I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, as I’ve had to duck as the odd apple-core hurtled in my direction in Wandsworth, but here the author gives the impression that there’s a deluge of disgusting items constantly raining down. The book might have been more effective had there been less melodrama.  Her depiction of feeding-time is particularly harrowing.  Poor old Holloway!  I feel that it’s being demonised rather.  An inmate in the Wandsworth V.P.U. – who some might refer to as ‘Bacon’ – once described how The Sun had pursued him to a remote corner of Europe where he had been attempting to piece together his life.  The Sun’s journalist described how, having traced the “culprit” to his lair, he unlocked the gate, cutting himself on the vindictive latch, then nearly twisted his ankle on the crooked stones of the path, only to be devoured, as near as, by the vicious hound (a miniature poodle, I think it was) slathering at the meanly-dimensioned doorway.  Everything associated with the malefactor had been tainted by his nature, even his pet!  Hilary Beauchamp gives Holloway the same treatment.

But the book is not just a portrait of an institution, it is also a series of portraits of incarcerated people; a whole gallery of lady rogues.  Here the author’s powers are the more compelling for being measured.  Many of the inmates she describes do not come over as rogues at all, but as people whose lives are intolerable burdens, and for these victims of society life behind bars is sometimes a life-line, sometimes a noose.  There’s Lisa, clearly an immensely talented outsider artist, whose artwork gets junked as she is carted off to Broadmoor.  Sister Grey, the chief nurse, wishes that she would paint “flowers or nice little sunsets.”  Lisa comes over as exceptional because, all too often, all one gets from inmates are saccharine sunsets and flowers copied from magazines.

These accounts of meetings with prisoners and the stories the author gets to know make for engrossing narratives.  The book is not just an inside story, but a cornucopia of stories within stories, some of them extraordinary, like that of Mary who eats her own dentures – and also swallows the tobacco tin of her cellmate, much to the cellmate’s horror – and disgust.  We also get to read about the enormously civilising effect The Koestler Awards for painting, craft and writing have on the prison community.  In her forward to this enjoyable, and almost too readable book, the artist Maggie Hambling aptly articulates the trade-off between art and crime.

Artists are lucky – poets, composers or painters – because rather than commit murder that can produce a work of art on the subject instead.  The urge to destroy is translated into the urge to create.  Looking at the other side of the coin, T. S. Eliot said, ‘Artists don’t borrow from other artists, they steal.

Further Reading and Contacts: 

End of Tether, published by It’s Wandsworth Magazine, Wanno Media Centre, HMP Wandsworth, 2004

Holloway Prison: an inside story by Hilary Beauchamp – Waterside Press ISBN 9781904380566 (paperback), 2010

See also: https://anthonyhowelljournal.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/prison-pumping-iron-and-performance/

Synergy Theatre Project, 3 Space International House, 6 Canterbury Crescent
London SW9 7QD

Email: info@synergytheatreproject.co.uk




About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
This entry was posted in Essays, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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