For Frankie Owen, the most important thing about his time in prison was to come out with his core values in tact. Learning from this experience and helped by agencies, he decided to write down his experiences with the aim of helping other prisoners and their families to do the same.
I was prisoner A1443CA at Her Majesties Pleasure until 2nd August 2011. As a first time offender I had no idea how the criminal justice 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 as went through it; it felt like self-help.
As the days progressed it occurred to me that my experiences would prove useful to first time offenders and their families and help them get through what is surely one of the most difficult times in their lives. The Little Book of Prison: A Beginners Guide was born.
I have read a lot of books about people in prison, those that were facing far worse situations than I was and often on much longer sentences. This gave me a sense of perspective. I wanted to write a book that would help new inmates, their friends and families to know what to expect from the system and this gave me a real purpose.
It occurs to me now that my writing was also about expressing myself: sharing my emotions and feelings and acknowledging my core values, the things that lie at the heart of human experience. If you are emotionally aware, it is easier to determine what is right and what is wrong and appreciate the impact of your offences and empathise with feelings of your victim.
But in prison, for much of the time, you shut down your emotions in order to get through the day; any sign of weakness on the wing could make you a victim. Once behind your door, you have time to think about what you have done, the family and loved ones that are suffering too and the helplessness that you feel. Some prisoners cannot bring themselves to think about this as it is too difficult, painful and mentally destructive.
This emotional rollercoaster is the most difficult thing about being in prison and for those who find it too difficult, the emotional shut down becomes so acute that they are unable to open up to share emotions or feelings. While locked away, some become completely detached; for them the system has a dehumanising effect, making them devoid of emotions and empathy. How will this affect them when they leave prison and will it help them to not reoffend on release?
Fortunately there are organisations that try to stem this process through bringing invaluable work into prison mostly funded by donations from charities and trusts. For example, I was introduced to the Toe by Toe mentor scheme, which helps prisoners read and write. It is funded by the Shannon Trust and run through the prison library. I was already helping prisoners write letters and encouraged them to join the scheme. It felt good to be helping people to learn to read and write, to enable prisoners to access a gateway for expression and education. Seeing the positive energy displayed by prisoners provided me with a powerful catalyst in completing the book.
The Little Book of Prison won the Koestler Trust’s 2011 platinum award for non-fiction, judged by Will Self. The Trust, which has been working in prisons for 50 years, runs an annual nationwide competition for prisoners within the creative industries; everything from traditional drawings, painting, model making to poetry and creative writing.
There are other examples. Inside Time is the national prison newspaper and has a poetry and letters section always brimming with entries from prisoners sharing their experiences, thoughts and feelings. And Not Shut Up, a monthly magazine, has regular contributions from prisoners who are encouraged to send in their stories, poetry and letters.
On release, I was invited to read an excerpt of my book at an event at the Southbank in London hosted by Not Shut Up and the Writers in Prison Network. Here I heard first hand about the ex-offenders’ positive experiences of writing and the role it had played in their path to rehabilitation. The Writers in Prison Network pays professional writers to go into prison and run groups, mentor, challenge and develop prisoners’ thoughts and perceptions through writing. The scheme has had its funding pulled and is now struggling to survive.
In times of austerity some people will argue that this kind of work is not a priority and is not something we cannot afford. My question would be whether we can afford not to fund the structures of support that promote and release creativity in prisoners?