English PEN offers reading and writing learning experiences to prisoners and young offenders. We have a particular interest in long-term prisoners, both young and old, women prisoners and young offenders.
We offer creative writing workshops, ‘meet the writer’ events and have held an annual English PEN Prison Writing Competition for the past four years. A collection of the winning and highly commended entries is published each year and launched with a celebration event.
I have never won anything in my life. I didn’t know I could write.
— ‘HB’, 2013 English PEN Prison Writing Flash Fiction winner, at English PEN office, after his release from HMP Warren Hill
Thanks to the support of Inside Time and National Prison Radio who announce the competition, there is a strong take-up from prisoners. In 2014, there were more than 500 entries from 80 prisons.
We are currently fundraising for the annual prison writing competition on JustGiving. Please consider making a donation or holding a fundraiser and help us to keep giving prisoners the chance to improve their skills and connect with the outside world.
Working closely with prison librarians, we run creative writing projects in prisons and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs). These are led by our cohort of writers who are highly skilled in working in secure environments and with people who may be disengaged and disenchanted with formal education. We also run Meet the Writer events, offering prisoners the opportunity to meet well known authors and engage with them through lively Q and A sessions. Guest writers have included Mark Haddon, Louis De Bernières and, most recently, Kate Tempest, who visited HMP Durham.
The writer-in-residence Sheila Mulhern said:
Kate worked with a disparate and damaged group of prisoners in HMP Durham. These are men with unhealthy attitudes to women (and themselves). She spoke to the better part of themselves and every one of them, traumatised, angry, unreasonable, was touched by her.
Her performance was electrifying and affected everyone; it levelled the playing field and allowed everyone just to be. They thought she was truthful and you could see them seriously seeing themselves. When the time to leave came, one by one, they all shook her hand.
Comments from the prisoners included:
It has been too long since I experienced someone who is so passionately talented and expressive.
A freeing of the mind.
Her thoughts about our ideas caused me to think in a different way.
Working with young offenders
In 2014, supported by the Big Lottery Fund, Awards for All, English PEN pioneered a flash fiction project specially designed for young people. Led by the writers Joelle Taylor and Femi Martin, four series of workshops were held at Young Offender Institutions in Suffolk, Kent and London. The focus was on flash fiction, a short form of writing that English PEN has found to be especially popular with young people.
One of the librarians involved in the project, Sarah Wright, Library Manager at HMP/YOI Isis, said:
The workshops were a real success and I was amazed and proud of the work that was produced. Femi Martin was fantastic throughout and really managed to bring out their creative side.