Walking for Forgiveness

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Prison strips you of everything while absorbing you into itself, leaving nothing of the person you were before – at which point it will be a full stop or a first step on a path to who you will be. I choose the latter, not to be a label but instead to set about writing my own label afresh

The quote is part of the introduction to ‘Shattered Images and Building Bridges – A Collection of Artwork and Writing from three Durham Prisons,’ a book I designed and published at the start of the year. Part of my reasoning was that people who live in such enclosed communities deserve the right to have their voices heard, and also to highlight the fact that creative writing has great therapeutic power. Many of my students within prisons have benefitted hugely from creative writing. They have discovered things about themselves, their relationships and thought processes that they wouldn’t have got elsewhere and this has had a beneficial effect in a number of ways – including greater confidence, greater skills, better awareness of self and others, better behaviour and better mental health. Amazing really – and all from pen and paper and a facilitator…

One man who has learned the power of writing the hard way is Frankie Owens, not a student in my class but someone who was locked up for a short period of time in 2011. The following quote is taken from his website…

“As a first time offender I had no idea how the system or a prison worked. I was clueless to it all, and it was hard for me going in and frightening for the family and loved ones I left behind. To save my sanity and give me something positive to focus on I began writing about the process I was going through, it felt like self-help”

Frankie Owens

Out of this writing came the ‘Little Book of Prison – A Beginners Guide’, an award-winning book for first time offenders and their families that can act as a guide as they try and get through a difficult period. Having said that, anyone vaguely interested would find the book an eye-opener, as the Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust obviously did…

“It is a practical and totally frank introduction to real life in the British prison system – probably the best introduction there is. But it is also a wonderfully human narrative and a sharply argued critique – the wit and wisdom of one inmate who turns out to be a born writer. I was gripped from start to finish – roared with laughter one minute, winced with pain the next, and was left wondering why we have prisons at all’ – Tim Robertson, Chief Executive, The Koestler Trust

And now, to raise money for The Forgiveness Project, Frankie is going for a walk – from John O’Groats to Land’s End! In fact, he’s already halfway through. I’ll be walking from Newcastle to Durham with him this Wednesday, but that’s only 16 miles. Frankie is walking well over one thousand miles. The Forgiveness Project is a UK based charity that uses storytelling to explore how ideas around forgiveness, reconciliation and conflict resolution can be used to impact positively on people’s lives, through the personal testimonies of both victims and perpetrators of crime and violence.

Terrible crimes hit the headlines often, such as the recent one where two policewomen were lured to their deaths. But please remember that, for every criminal such as this one, there are thousands and thousands of other prisoners that have committed offences nowhere near this scale of things. The prison population in England and Wales has reached a record high on a number of occasions this year and currently stands at over eighty-eight thousand. According to the BBC, 3,056 new laws were introduced in the UK in 2010, 2,492 in 2009 and 2,148 in 2008. Almost all – 98% – were introduced as statutory instruments, which do not require full debate in Parliament. The new Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has already trawled out the usual get tough quotes that are assumed to be popular vote winners. Some people though, Frankie among them, would suggest current policy isn’t working. Everyone is entitled to their own view but surely those who’ve committed offences and the victims of crimes are the people we should be listening to most. The Forgiveness Project works with both to seek alternatives to resentment, retaliation and revenge.

Perhaps you agree too, and wouldn’t mind donating some money to The Forgiveness Project. Frankie’s keen to hear from people himself and would like writers or supporters to walk part of the way with him. If you can help in any way it would be appreciated and it really could make a difference…

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Shattered Images and Building Bridges

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Shattered Images and Building Bridges – a collection of Writing and Artwork from three Durham Prisons is the second book to be published by Lapwing Books, the publishing company I created last year to release my own book ‘Andalucia.’

Shattered Images and Building Bridges will be launched to the public at Durham University and Newcastle University on Thursday 26th April and Thursday 3rd May. Please get in touch should you wish to come along. See below for more details of the launches, how to buy a hardback book or receive a free PDF of it instead…

In the last couple of years, I’ve worked as Writer-in-Residence at HMP Durham, have facilitated three creative projects inside HMP Low Newton and have continued my permanent post as Creative Writing tutor at HMP Frankland and as Editor of their prison magazine. Much of that work came from the wonderful and now defunct (thanks to government, arts council and council cuts) Durham City Arts, who placed me in Durham and Low Newton and also gave me the last of their money to design, format and publish Shattered Images, a limited print run of a beautiful and powerfully written hardback book now on sale for only a tenner.

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The prisons I worked in are all very different – and their writing reflects that. Durham is a category B local and remand prison, holding more than nine hundred men. Low Newton is a womens prison, holding more than three hundred convicted and remanded women over the age of eighteen. And Frankland is a category A high security prison with more than eight hundred men, all serving a minimum of four years but most serving much much more.

Here’s a piece of writing from the book….

Razor Wire

Every window I look out from, I see nothing but razor wire. Coils of it sitting up high above every fence, every wall.

Sometimes ragged pieces of clothing hang flapping in the wind. Pigeons look for food thrown out of windows by inmates, until the crows come and scare them away. The lay of the land, survival of the fittest. Some of the pigeons look sad, some missing a foot, bald patches in their feathers. Who really are the survivors in life, I wonder…

That’s where the saying comes from.

Plenty of bird and bars, not the kind I would like. The saying ‘doing bird,’ ‘doing sparrow,’ relates to birds in cages. Some prisons, lifer jails, allow prisoners to keep budgerigars as pets, companions in their cells. Home Office legislation is now putting a stop to it, as prisoners who own budgerigars cause problems for the prison service when being transferred to other establishments.

A man convicted of murder can show love and care looking after one of God’s small creatures. Even the hardest of men have a heart. It’s just finding it. But prison does not encourage finding the heart. It destroys it. Binds it with coils of razor wire so tight it chokes the meaning of life from it.

One day I hope to see from my window a clear view, not obscured by fences and walls laced with razor wire. Maybe a little knee-high picket fence. Beyond that fields, trees and blue sky. Animals grazing. And hopefully my grandchildren, playing with my son, who will be a man. The pigeons won’t be the scrawny little survivors. They will be big overfed wood pigeons and collared doves. The clothes flapping in the wind will be washing on the line. I will see my wife folding the clothes and putting them in a basket. The smell of fear, hate and desperation will be gone, replaced by certainty, love and happiness. That’s my window; the window locked within my mind. A prisoner, never knowing the day of his release; doing time, doing bird, doing sparrow.

There are nearly ninety thousand prisoners in England and Wales, despite most crime statistics reporting a fall in numbers. We’re locking more people up and we’re locking them up for longer, in some cases much longer. What does all this mean for the prisoner? I wouldn’t consider myself qualified as a spokesman. That’s why it became my mission to publish this book. The pen is a mighty instrument. When your life is curtailed through incarceration, your future blocked by concrete walls, it is natural to turn backwards and ponder, to investigate decisions and actions that led to such a predicament. And it can often be reassuring and warming to gather up some of those good memories too.

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Here’s another piece of writing. The quality of writing in the book is so good and so powerful that I would like to post them all here, but that’s impossible, so I’ve decided to show the variety of the work by giving you a poem, this one remembering the good old days….

Haiti

Do you remember us riding horseback,

Chasing the wind?

You cupped to me in saddle,

Knuckles white with tension.

Spindly arms clenched about my waist,

Your brow between my shoulder blades

As I slackened the reigns, quickening the pulse.

Kicked up earth on savannah plains,

Three heart-beats galloping to the same song.

Baked earth drummed under hoof,

Ashanty’s shack with the broken roof,

We entered whole but left unchaste.

Black villagers cutting sugar cane as we passed,

Sweat dripping off their leather toned skins.

And cotton pickers perfect in their song,

Perfect in their limbs,

Dancing to ancestral beats

While incorporating Christian hymns

In the sunset at labour’s end.

Acacia and lavender

Rolled off the misty hills.

We lost ourselves that day,

Sue Ellen

To our incorrigible wills.

I’ve written beforehand about the therapeutic power of creative writing so I won’t go on about it here. But I’ve seen prisoners come into jail feeling suicidal and I’ve witnessed and helped them come to terms with things by using writing. The arts, always the first to be cut in times of financial mismanagement by governments, are not “soft targets.” For in difficult times the arts work in ways that speak to the self. At the least they take up time and help people learn new skills. At best, they are transforming…

The lauch at Durham University is on Thursday 26th April  at 6pm at the Josephine Butler College. You need your name on the door for that one though, so contact me if you’re interested.

The launch at Newcastle University is a First Thursday Reading, on Thursday 3rd May, at 1pm, in the King George VI building, on the corner of Queen Victoria Road and St Thomas Street. This one’s open to the public so you can just walk in.

For both launches I will be doing a small reading from Kicked Out and Andalucia, and talking about my experiences of working in the criminal justice system – as a social worker in a youth offending team and as a senior project worker in an emergency access homeless hostel, as well as in various prisons. All of the readings, apart from the above two, will come from Shattered Images and Building Bridges.

If you want to buy a copy for ten pounds then please let me know. They are beautifully made and there won’t be any more created when they are all gone. The writing is important and very powerful. You can message me here, e-mail me personally or at richard@lapwingbooks.com. Alternatively, you can order a free PDF by contacting me.

Thank you