‘Sentences handed out by the courts are longer and longer. Some of these young men are in prison for 25 to 33 years. I have to ask them: ‘Will we work together to make this time productive for you or not?‘ That’s the question they have to answer.’
Gerry Watts, Head of Offender Outcomes, HMP Shotts.
In consultation with HMP Shotts prison in Scotland and their creative writing tutor Stewart Ennis, English PEN visited the prison to meet a group of long term prisoners, some of whom had their writing published in the 2015 PEN Prison Writing Competition pamphlet In A Parallel Universe. HMP Shotts submitted the highest number of entries into the competition and thus won a visit from the competition judge, writer Meg Rosoff.
We met the men in the design and creative arts hub, and one of the prisoners mentioned to Meg his PEN-published review of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The review is particularly powerful when read now, knowing that its writer, aged 26, is serving 33 years.
Meg didn’t want to just give a reading (too boring for the guys) but instead asked them to answer a list of questions to encourage a deeper discussion. This created a lively debate in response to questions like ‘What was a turning point in your life?’ (answer from a career criminal: ‘I got thrown out of college for fighting – and so never became a bricklayer’) to ‘Tell me where were you happiest’ (several answered: at the birth of their children). Answers got from asking ‘Which animal would you most like to be?’ caused the most laughs; we were in a room with everything from a unicorn to a dolphin and many different birds. Then there were the more poignant questions: ‘If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?’ (answer: ‘I’d like to have an education’, or the more common: ‘I’d like to be able to travel’).
HMP Shotts is built on the top of a hill in Lanarkshire with large skylight windows, and so there were beautiful views of the green hills with autumn light streaming in. There were also lots of swallows in the exit corridor who had flown in and were sitting in narrow ledges trying to fly out again and often failing: symmetry.
All men and women in prison serving very long sentences create their own particular kind of challenges for the prison community. The usual work-related opportunities are much less available or attractive when you are faced with 25 years or more to serve – will the world need these new skills in 20+ years? What’s the point of doing anything? These (mainly male) prisoners have committed crimes, often the worst kind, and need to be punished. But years of imprisonment can offer little hope and so depression and self harm, drug abuse and loss of self worth is common.
Creative arts make a difference: encouraging self expression, discovering new writers, thinking about how other people live, learning the power of words when you feel utterly powerless, putting yourself down on the page or picking up a book to keep you company. Prisoners serving long sentences can be ill-served because they are not always a priority for governmental schemes (which often aim to reduce reoffending). And yet, longer and longer sentences are being handed out by judges so that there are many more young men and women in prison for decades. English PEN believes in allowing these individuals the chance to learn and change.
A famous philosopher said ‘life can only be understood backwards’. Reading, writing, thinking and learning helps that understanding, and without understanding there can be no change.
A huge thank you to Meg Rosoff, Stewart Ennis and HMP Shotts.