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Can writing prose stop young prisoners reoffending?

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Can writing prose stop young prisoners reoffending? Empty Can writing prose stop young prisoners reoffending?

Post  eddie Sun May 29, 2011 9:20 pm

Write to Freedom: can prose stop young prisoners reoffending?

The founder of a groundbreaking scheme reveals how writing can lead to rehabilitation for young offenders and talks to four inmates with whom he works

Caspar Walsh The Observer, Sunday 29 May 2011

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Transformer, 17: 'I didn't sleep for a week, all I could think about was the outside world'. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

During the 70s and 80s, I was an angry, violent, teenage drug addict. My dad was serving a five-year prison sentence for fraud, drug-dealing and robbery and I spent much of my time committing petty and mid-level crime, including criminal damage to public property and dealing class A drugs. Inevitably I got caught – beginning with overnight stays in police stations, graduating to remand in a young offenders' institution and then on to a series of frightening adult holding cells in London and the West Midlands. By the age of 18, I was on the run with a warrant out for my arrest. After a year hiding out in a house in the countryside, I was finally caught. It was a relief. I'd seen my dad do years inside and while my time locked up amounted to weeks, it was long enough. My final release on bail was on the condition I go to rehab. The very real prospect of long-term imprisonment terrified me and I decided to turn my back on my destructive ways, clean up and dedicate my life to my rehabilitation. I'd seen what prison had done to my dad and I committed myself to doing anything I had to, so as to avoid repeating the mistakes he made, which eventually led to his suicide.

As I found some balance in my life, I was encouraged by mentors to help others who had struggled with similarly dysfunctional and often violent upbringings; young people who had failed within mainstream education and ended up on the wrong side of the law. I connected with the young people with whom I came into contact because of our shared experience and desire to break out of damaging patterns of behaviour.

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A future to look forward to: As part of his work under the Write to Freedom project, Reprasent set out his goals and hopes for the life he wants to lead after release from detention. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Over the years, I've refined a programme tailored to suit the needs of "kids like me", with an emphasis on writing. During this time, I've pursued my career as a writer of plays and books. My prison writing programme is successful because I've been through much the same experience as the young people I work with. I know what it's like to be locked up, rejected by friends, family and society, and I know that it's possible, with a lot of hard graft, to turn your life around. My main focus is on pre- and post-release support, using writing and one-to-one mentoring to help prisoners stay out of trouble and support them – I hope – into a meaningful and productive life. My team and I present positive role models, something I severely lacked as a young adult.

The scale of our project is currently small; we work in several prisons in and around the south-west and Wales. We see roughly 15 to 20 prisoners every month. I have recently established a charity, Write to Freedom, and, funding permitting, this autumn will see the start of the Write to Freedom year-long wilderness and writing course based on Dartmoor. This course will involve four weekends focused on helping young people with the transition into adulthood. When their year is complete, students will be invited to apply for the staff training course, which can lead to paid work within Write to Freedom as well as help them with other careers.

Independent organisations such as Write to Freedom are growing in number, but many more are needed. I tried to promote my project and counter the very negative media portrayal of youth crime in a blog on the Guardian/Observer website. I use it to tell the stories of the young people I work with as they unfold, good and bad. There is always a reason for their behaviour. It doesn't take a psychologist to figure out that if you abuse, neglect and reject a child they will almost certainly grow up damaged, violent and will often use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.

I've come across many young people who simply should not be in prison. Some need to be locked up for issues of public and personal safety, no doubt, but this is only a small number of the masses that actually end up inside because of a lack of community support. It costs £55,000 a year to imprison a young person. A fraction of this would be far more effectively spent on keeping lesser offenders out of prison and in society, engaged in crime-reduction programmes and contributing positively to the community.

In 2009/10, 2% of the population of young people in England and Wales aged between 10 and 17 were convicted of an offence or received a reprimand. Of more than 100,000 convicted, 5,130 were given custodial sentences. Bob Ashford, director of strategy at the Youth Justice Board, believes we are failing a lot of these young people. "There has been progress, but there is still so much to improve on. Local services supporting young people getting back on track must link up and talk more. So many local services and community support groups fail to work together as a team."

Meanwhile, a survey carried out by the National Youth Agency (NYA) and the Confederation of Heads of Young People's Services (Chyps) suggests that 82% of youth services are facing cuts. Fiona Blacke, chief executive of the NYA, said: "Inevitably, these cuts will mean that at a time of recession, when young people face enormous challenges, they will not get the advice and support needed to progress."

The following interviews are snapshots of four young men I'm currently working with in a young offenders' prison in southern England. I offer three of these stories as a counter to the negative media portrayal and wider, kneejerk moral panic around serious youth crime today. One story, however, is a sobering reminder that there is not a holy grail quick-fix to stop all youth crime. I have worked with these young men for several months. I set them written assignments outside of our one-to-one sessions that they complete in their cells. The idea is to get underneath the "front" and swagger and discover what it was that led them to prison. As a rule, I don't ask about the specifics of the crimes committed. Getting caught up in the details – innocence, guilt – can be an unwanted distraction.

For the protection of the victims as well as the perpetrators, the details of the crimes have been kept to a minimum. The sentencing next to their names (all changed) indicates the minimum they must serve before a parole hearing. They are all serving sentences under the detention for public protection order directive, known as DPP. Don't be misled by the short fixed sentences. Most of them will be inside for a long time.

Caspar Walsh's latest novel, Blood Road (Headline), is out now. For more information about Write to Freedom, go to


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Transformer's prison cell. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Two years' detention for public protection. Grievous bodily harm. Sentence due for review.

Transformer is from the west of England. He was the first student I met on the wing, hand outstretched, with a shy but warm smile on his face. He is keen, polite and wrote from the moment he sat down. T has already endured much more than most. I was told that he can quickly and unexpectedly become violent, but I have found him calm and easy to be around. I felt no fear of him as I do with some prisoners. It's possible he was on medication. Many young people in prison are on medication. I'm against medication to control behaviour without addressing the root of the problem, but if it enables a student to initially engage, so be it.

Tell me about your family and the incidents that changed your life.

My uncle was murdered when I was 12 years old. He stopped two lads bullying someone and they came back for him after, beating him up and dragging him around naked and left him in an alley to die. My mum died when I was 14. I went into a room and saw her hanging from a rope. Dad looked after me but he couldn't handle it because I was kicking off, so he called the social worker. My social worker came to my dad's home and they took me outside to wait while they finished talking to him. I was upset a lot as I couldn't stop thinking about why this was happening to me. My social worker told me I would be going to stay in a home in Wales. We went to a house and a woman opened the door. We went in and she told me to come and sit down so I did. She gave me a drink and I was worrying and still really upset. I went in to a small room and she put on a TV for me and I fell asleep.

I was first arrested in the South Valleys for ABH (actual bodily harm). I was sent to a secure unit. I didn't think I was going to be able to cope. I didn't sleep for a week – all I could think about was home and the outside world. When they shut that cell door I was sick inside. I just wanted to be back home with my family and to wake up in my own bed and just say to myself it was a bad dream. I spent 15 months there before I was released on tag. I cut it off. They got me and sent me to where I am now. I got sent down because I hit a guy, because he disrespected me. I was angry and upset after I hit him. I felt proud that I didn't back down but now I'm incarcerated I'm sorry that I didn't walk away instead. I came to this wing from another nick because I got into a fight there with a kidprison. They gave me more time. I feel bad about that, too.

What do you want to say about your crime?

Since my incarceration, I have changed. I know what I did was wrong but I'm planning on doing work around my offence to make up for what I've done. If I could see my victim, I would say sorry to him and explain that I was on drugs and drink and I was a different person to who I am today.

What dreams and plans do you have for the future?

When I'm out of prison I'm going to stop myself coming back by keeping myself busy. I'll go fishing and to church and anything to stop myself getting bored. I'm going to go back to college. I'm going to get help so I stay away from drugs and I'm going to get a job. So it will help me to stay away from crime.


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J-Freedom, 17: ‘I come close to crying many times’. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Six years' DPP. Wounding with intent to cause serious harm. Sentence reviewed. Will be transferred to adult prison this summer.

J-Freedom came to a session with the proviso that he would stay no more than 10 minutes. He ended up staying for over an hour. He covered his mouth while speaking and initially didn't look me in the eye. A serious young man with an edge of anger, I was taken aback at the end of the photo session for this feature when J-Freedom hugged me. This has never happened to me before. Contact is generally forbidden between staff and inmates unless it's a handshake or force is required. I reciprocated the hug. It spoke volumes and made my week.

How do you feel about being locked up?

Angry. People said don't hang around with the wrong people. I thought I'd be OK 'cause I got into low-level trouble, nothing serious, little fights. This guy got stabbed and cut up. I'd been in low-level trouble before. I did get arrested with a firearm before. Part of my sentence involved GBH for another thing I did, which makes it longer. I need to get out of here. I think about my family a lot. I come close to crying many times but it doesn't come. I just get on with it.

Tell me about your friends and family.

I live alone. I'd just got my first flat when I got arrested. I don't get on with my dad too well. I've got a girlfriend, but I'm sure it won't last with me being in here. I don't want her to come visit. Friends want to visit but I say no to them, too. It would upset me too much. I get on good with my mum but she lives in Jamaica. We speak on the phone. When I was living with my dad and his girlfriend, I got sick of it and asked to go into foster care. So I went.

What do you want to do when you get out?

Go back to college, stay in England. My mum wants me to go to America but I don't want to go – I've got close friends here. I want to study carpentry, City and Guilds. I'm not trying to say I'm a saint, I do stuff, I do get into trouble. I'll be moved to an adult prison when I'm 18, long before I get out. I reckon it will be harder. I'm concerned about it.

What would you say to the public about your conviction?

There are two sides to every story. The media review the bad parts, not good. You can't make judgments about a person unless you have all the information. Some people deserve what they get, some don't have a choice. Even though you know a better road you can't always just go down the right one. It's one thing to say you're going to change but having the willpower is something different.


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Reprasent, 17: ‘I want to tell teenagers about the effects of crime on them’. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Two years' DPP. Possession of firearm with intent to commit an indictable offence. Sentence reviewed, first parole application rejected.

Reprasent wore an almost constant smirk or grin. He was friendly and communicative. He got down to the writing exercises immediately, saying: "Once I start, I can't stop." While he didn't go into the details of his crime, there was clearly shame and regret around what he'd done.

His comments about rehabilitation were positive and full of hope and must be supported. The hope with Reprasent, as with all the students, is that he'll get in touch when he eventually gets out and become involved with the Write to Freedom post-release programme.

His desire to help others is heartwarming and is part of the solution.

Tell me about your crime and how you ended up in here.

When I committed, I was young, stupid and very heavily taking drugs and alcohol every day. I was not living at home and was consistently fighting with family members and had a lot of things going on at the time. My mam was in and out of hospital as she was suffering with anorexia and I hardly ever got to see her and that was just driving me to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping.

But when I got sent to prison, I realised it was time to change my ways and how I go about things. And I've looked back on what I was doing to my family when I was drinking and taking drugs and what I put them through, and have decided I want to help people stop taking drugs and help them to better their lives. So since I've been in jail, I've noticed a lot and have realised the impact of crime on the community and everyone else. I would also like to give talks to teenagers about how crime changed my life and what effects it has on them and their family.

How will you avoid crime?

Do the Forgiveness Project. Boxing. Walk away from any confrontations. Talk to family about any issues.

How do you see your future?

My plans for the future are to go to college and better my education. Also, I have got trials with a county cricket club, so that is work as I would earn about 35k a year and they would provide me with somewhere to live and a car. But after a few seasons, if I'm good enough, I could earn £250,000 a year. I hope to strengthen my relationship with my family, especially my sister. Also, I'm never going to touch or go near a firearm again. And I'm not going to touch drugs ever again.

T-MAN, 17

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T-Man, 17: ‘I can’t regret what I did.Violence is who I am, it’s what I do’. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Three years' DPP. GBH with intent to cause serious harm. No review imminent.

T-Man sat down and looked me straight in the eye and nodded politely. The most time he spent outside his cell in the first six weeks I worked with him was for the short walk to the hairdresser in the next block. All his exercise was done in his cell. He'd become nocturnal, watching television and reading through the night, coming out for breakfast, then back to his cell to sleep for the rest of the day. He reads up to three books a week.

He is intelligent and articulate, which is often contradicted by his sudden shifts from wise adult to statements very much in line with his 17 years of life. Despite the warnings and being told of the horrific nature of his crime, I felt no threat from him. He has been described as beyond remorse or redemption, but I believe we are all capable of rehabilitation.

Tell me about your family.

I had to look after my mum. My stepdad didn't give her anything so I had to commit crime. My real dad is in Jamaica in prison for murder. He's got everything he wants, including drugs and women. He got tired of running and decided to give himself up. He's inside but at least he can relax and he's in charge. He said if I ever end up in prison to "establish yourself". So my first time inside I picked the biggest guy and went at him until he went down.

Tell me about your friendships.

I don't make friends, I make alliances. Friends eventually find a way to let you down, but alliances have their uses. It's hard to hurt a friend that let me down but just that bit easier to hurt an alliance. I have gained some alliances; I didn't come to prison to make friends.

What do you want to say about your situation?

I don't need to be locked up. It don't change nothing. I got used to violence and in prison I got into it more. It became a form of expression. If you want to help people, you help them, you don't just lock them up – out of sight, out of mind. All you do when you lock them up is make them angry. I know I should spend time in prison, though. I accept the time I got. To be truthful, it's not long enough. The justice system is ridiculous. Too many loopholes. It can be used. Once you're labelled a criminal, you're fucked.

How do you feel about the crime you committed?

Truthfully, I know I should feel bad about what I did – after all, I destroyed a life – but I've been doing this most of my life, so I'd be lying if I said it bothered me. But it is an inconvenience.

What would you say to the victim of your crime?

What would I say to him now? "I don't regret what I did to you. Maybe I should, but I don't. I gave you fair warning and you didn't listen."

What kind of life do you see for yourself in five years?

Honestly, I don't know, but if I'm still alive I'll have some more kids and I'll hopefully be in America with my extended family.

Do you regret your crime?

It's like this, you see, I can't regret what I did. Violence is who I am, it's what I know, it's what I do. If I regret the violence then I regret myself, then I'd have no identity. I wouldn't know who I am and I'd fall apart. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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