by Martin Belk

Reading Jail

November 11, 2010 | by Martin Belk

Creative writing classes offer young offenders a route back to the world. A class tutor explains how.

‘ Body farming’ – is that how society sees its prisons?

Polmont Young Offenders Institution doesn’t look like a jail when you walk in. The sliding doors open automatically, like any office tower. A waiting area is just to the left, with blue-grey carpeting and a few toys for young children to play with. No bars, no barking dogs, no armed guards. The reception is like a Scottish Executive building or the foyer of a bank. After you clear security, you take the long walk down to the learning centre with every staff member you meet wishing you a good morning. Sure, locks and doors control movement, but the building remains humane and friendlier than any corporate office I’ve ever worked in.

For over three years, I’ve served as Writer-in-Residence on a voluntary basis in Polmont, and engaged with a large number of young inmates. This work keeps returning me to a question that has never been satisfactorily answered since the modern prison era began. What is the purpose of prisons? To punish, rehabilitate, or both? The origins of the question lie in a moment of historical irony. The state-sanctioned ostracism from society of human beings arose at a time when people in Colonial America and Europe began awakening to a notion of freedom. In England, an act of 1575 calling for “the punishment of vagabonds and the relief of the poor” established “houses of correction” in every county. A century later, in 1676, Louis XIV sent an edict prescribing a ‘Hôpital Général’ in every French city. The legislation for these exclusions was intended originally for the mad, then the sick, then offenders, political enemies, and lower-class undesirables. Justice was arbitrary, and remained so through the era of liberté, égalité, fraternité and beyond. Nor was this the case in France alone.

Quarantine makes sense medically, as with plagues. In a judgement of madness, however, it was ambiguous, though it did prove useful when citizens who posed difficulties to the state had to be dealt with. According to Michel Foucault, in Madness And Civilization, “One out of every hundred inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves confined” for varying lengths of time during the seventeenth century. “Absolute power made use of lettres de cachet and arbitrary measures of imprisonment …
[extended equally to] the poor, to the unemployed, to prisoners and to the insane. […] As with the libertine…or the ruffian…it is difficult to say [who is] mad, sick, or criminal.”

Polmont’s senior officials have learned from experience: contrary to the theory behind the Hôpital Général, the further you remove people from society, the less likely they’ll productively integrate back into it. Officials came to similar conclusions two centuries ago. As Foucault writes,“The evil which men had attempted to exclude by confinement reappeared, to the horror of the public.”While some criminals are hardened beyond hope, and need to be locked away, I’m not so sure about the greater portion of humans we leave to languish in prison.

Whether you choose to look at government statistics, the testimony of prison officers, or my experience of working with young inmates, the findings are similar: in approximately 80 per cent of cases, alcohol was a major contributory factor to the offence. Most prisoners I know stood trial, unable to defend themselves, because they had no memory of events due to blackouts. Ironically, the local term for this is ‘Mad w’ it’.

When I began working with young men at Polmont I noticed their lack of self-confidence. Peer-pressure shames those with ambition as ‘attention seekers’. One of my students, Calum, reported being put on the street to run with ‘the lads’ at the age of four. Another, Jeffrey, at age 8, was charged with the full-time care of his two younger brothers, aged 5 and 3. Both came from families of alcoholics. What do pre-teen boys do, I asked, when left in the street to fend for themselves? Drink, do drugs, join gangs. “What else were we supposed to do, when that’s all you know?” Calum has repeatedly asked me.

Like Calum and Jeffrey, many inmates report long histories of alcohol, drugs, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse. Some have legitimate mental health illnesses, and need proper diagnosis and treatment. Many experienced a school system that is coercive and labelled them as troublemakers from a young age. Most report negative social conditioning (intentional or not) on the part of families, carers, teachers. “My family and people in my neighbourhood always said that I’d end up in jail,” Jeffrey told me. “The last time I saw my father was after I’d been arrested, we crossed paths in handcuffs. ‘Hi Dad, what you in for?’” reported another boy, forcing out a shy laugh.

Rigid business approaches to learning also present a problem, parcelling out a system of ‘bums on seats’ and bottom-line rationales. The results alienate good teachers and students alike, and the effect on the prisoners is devastating, resulting in a greater aversion to learning. If we’re looking to ensure released offenders return to jail, this is a good way of going about it.

The encouraging news is that I have not met or worked with one official at the Scottish Prison Service who does not want positive change. Let’s face it: ‘body-farming’ is depressing. Farms where nothing grows. Nothing changes. Of course, offences must be punished. Sentences must be served. But then what? If we follow the US model, the farms only get bigger, and the result is painfully similar to what Musquinet de la Pagne observed in Paris in 1790, “These wards are a dreadful place where all crimes together ferment and spread around them … a contagious atmosphere.”

My wish is for all young people today to reclaim their own narrative, whether locked in jail or tied to an iPod. If they don’t, they will be victims of something Thomas Mann wrote on: “Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves context – it is silence which isolates.” Young people in custody can be vague about why they’re there, and so internalise another narrative, which is not autochthonous but imposed by the authorities and sections of the press, that ‘explains’ their behaviour. These are kids that have fallen through the cracks, been left behind as hands-on teaching and apprenticeships were traded for standardized tests.

Only three of my hundred or so prison writers have claimed “I didn’t do it”. And one actually didn’t; he was proven innocent after serving three years. So, if any of them write down even one authentic line about themselves, I’ve done my job. One honest statement in a notebook they take with them after they leave jail could mean the difference between a positive future and a career in criminality.

Students start exactly where they are with regards to their vocabulary and language. We don’t ‘dumb down’, we do not judge. We write about anger and pain, guilt and amends, forging a bond with the outside world. Some have all but cried when we’ve studied Samuel Beckett, and learned that creative failure is an option, as is the resolve to “fail better”. We use Romeo and Juliet to discuss gangs and knife crime. On racism, we read James Baldwin and Malcolm X; there may be parallels between today’s ‘ned’ and yesterday’s ‘nigger’.

If facilitated correctly, the results are astonishing. My approach is a hybrid of personal essay and Theatre-in-Education. T-i-E takes contemporary topics and develops them into dramatic narratives that are performed, and has proven effective in dealing with drug abuse, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, bullying, and spousal abuse. The personal essay develops the solitary act of writing within a group setting. Combined with T-i-E, it opens a path to other genres in writing. After three years, we’ve been given permission to match written evaluations with proper college credits. Many other dedicated agents, charities and arts organizations are engaged in new, equally valid work. Now we’re getting somewhere.

What about the victims? For some, writing classes invite the suspicion that prison is cushy; to certain minds, rehabilitation itself is disrespectful to those hurt by the inmates. My answer: do everything in our power to honour victims by preventing more.

When I visited Barlinnie prison, the library was empty, to the dismay of the officer in charge. As Green Day’s ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ came on the radio, I began to make notes about how to keep our young people from re-entering prison once they’ve left:

Prisoners need to be kept as involved, informed and engaged with society as possible. The further they are removed, the more likely they will re-offend.

Make prison tough. No TV in the daytime. Mandatory activities – education, sport, work. Work should encourage self-sufficiency.

End the dismal failure of placing young offenders directly back into the communities they come from. Prison officials, teachers and support workers agree this is the number one ingredient in a high rate of re-offending. Same gangs, same arguments, grudges, fights and trouble – they need a clean start. Make relocation a privilege, not a right.

Offer tax breaks and other incentives to businesses that employ prisoners after release. Even the most menial job can make a world of difference.

Ban videos depicting children in the act of committing crimes from social networking sites. Enforce the ban as strongly as that on child pornography.

Propose a new national service policy – military, forestry, nursing older people or helping the poor. It’s time to give back.

On 23 November 2010 bidding will close on the new learning contract for prisons in Scotland. Write to your MSP. Mark my words and the advice of those on the front lines: you do not want jails to go private. Private jails are jails for profiteers and will ensure that nothing changes. Penny wise, pound foolish. The choice is clear: suffer more crime by alienating criminals in private bureaucracies or seize the opportunity to write a new story.

If you would like to help by becoming a ‘pen-pal’ or mentor, or read a longer version of this essay, visit www.IamONE.co.uk.

From this Issue

Burking The Truth

by Owen Dudley Edwards

Reading Jail

by Martin Belk

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