Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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The Dead Prison Poets Society

Alex Cavendish with a poignant piece on prisoners and poetry writing. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

Prisoners write poetry. Well, not all of them of course, since a very high proportion of those we incarcerate do have problems with literacy, but poetry and drawing are readily accessible art forms for many cons. For some the creative arts help them to pass the time, as well as search for meaning in a place where life often lacks any real purpose.
St Paul: he did time inside
Prisons and poetry just seem to go together. Some of the world’s greatest literature – from books of the Bible through to more modern classics – has been penned by authors who were banged-up behind bars – some because of crimes committed, but others jailed for their political or religious beliefs: St Paul, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Milovan ─Éilas, Nelson Mandela – to name but a few.  

Writing can offer an opportunity for prisoners to look beyond the high walls that confine them, as well as providing an outlet through which they can express their deepest sorrows, desires, fears and nostalgic memories of the world outside as it passes them by. Behind the stereotypes, some ‘hard lads’ do write poems – usually for their girlfriends, partners or children – although they rarely show them to their mates in the slammer. To be honest, much of it isn’t of great literacy merit. Think greetings card verse, rather than The Ballad of Reading Gaol or the works of Robert Lowell.

Some of the better prison poetry does make it into print, either in anthologies or through the pages of Inside Time. Each year there are also various competitions for creative writers in jail, including the annual Koestler Awards, so there is some welcome encouragement and support for new talent in the slammer.

Makes annual awards to prison writers and artists
I’ve personally met some genuinely talented writers inside the nick. A few are published authors – poems or short stories mainly – and one even had a volume of verse printed and distributed by a small publishing house that specialises in literature written by prisoners while he was still banged-up in a Cat-C on the same wing as me. He also won a Koestler award for his poetry, which to my mind is of outstanding quality. I reviewed his book for the prison magazine and a signed copy is standing on the bookshelf next to my desk right now. 

At the same Cat-C nick we had the active support of a prolific local writer in residence who came into the nick regularly to organise creative writing groups for cons. He encouraged, inspired and assisted those who wanted to explore different kinds of literature. He also edited the prison magazine, which, of the three in-house prison publications I read while inside, was by far the best, both in terms of content and production quality.
Not the prison version...
Today I’ve decided to write about a small group of prisoners who formed a mutual support group at an inner city Cat-B local nick where there was no official creative writing programme. Although we didn’t really have a specific name – it was more of an informal ‘circle’ of mates who got together in each other’s pads (cells) to talk about what we had been writing – I think it might now justifiably be called the ‘Dead Prison Poets Society’, because of the four of us who were regular members, I’m the last one left standing.

Two of our number opted for suicide while in prison; the other was found dead on the floor of his single cell during the early morning roll check. He’d had a massive heart attack.

So as the last of these Dead Prison Poets left, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about one of our number. I’ll call him ‘Dean’ (not his real name). I first met him while he was on judge’s remand awaiting sentencing. He was a large skinhead with a goatee and tattoos. He seemed to spend much of his time heavily medicated for various medical problems and I’d watched him shuffle around the exercise yard in the spring sunshine looking spaced out. Based on prejudiced first impressions, I had the misconception that he wasn’t the sort of bloke with whom I’d have much in common.
A skinhead... and a poet
He was on another wing, but one day we started a casual conversation out on the yard and I realised that Dean was a bright lad and quite widely read. He was also keen to improve his education and so he signed up for literacy classes in the prison education department where I was working as a peer mentor. We got to know each other pretty well and shortly afterwards he moved over onto my wing.

Although there wasn’t much association, even back then in the days before ‘Calamity’ Chris Grayling, we did manage to spend our free time talking and playing Scrabble. Eventually we decided to found our own creative writing group – hence the ‘Prison Poets’. A couple of like-minded cons joined us and we took it in turns to visit each other’s pads to drink cheap coffee and read what we were writing at the time. When it comes to creative writing I’m more of a short story writer myself, but Dean was very definitely a poet in the making.

His poems were mainly about memories of life before prison, failed relationships, loss and questions about existence, especially important for a prisoner who was searching for meaning. He often re-worked his poems many time, agonising over specific words to ensure they caught his meaning precisely. Sometimes he’d visit my cell to ask for my opinion of the latest revision.
Writing in jail.. looking over the wall
Over the months Dean filled several exercise books with poems. He also had a pocket notepad he’d use to jot down scraps of poems, or images that came to him on the exercise yard or in the classroom. I wish that I’d asked him for handwritten copies of some of his best work. Like Soviet dissidents circulating forbidden literature (Samidzat) in written form, we wrote in longhand and passed our material around the wing between members of our circle, but there were rarely any duplicates.

While he was waiting for his sentencing hearing, Dean still seemed to have some hope for the future. However, after he returned from court he had changed. When I had the opportunity of asking him how it had gone, he shook his head and whispered “Eighteen”. At first, I misunderstood. I thought he meant a sentence of 18 months, but in fact it was years – a minimum tariff of 18 years. 

The sentence crushed him utterly. A few days later he received a letter from his wife’s solicitor. She was leaving him and would never visit. She never wanted to hear from him again and he realised he’d also never get to see his young child as he grew up. 

For some days we didn’t see Dean in education classes or even out on the yard. He wrote nothing and didn’t visit his mates for coffee or a chat. Then he ended up having an altercation with a wing screw and was sent down the Block (segregation unit) for a couple of weeks. When he finally got back on the wing he was so broken and defeated that I feared for his safety.
A letter from jail
Then, suddenly, I was transferred out to another Cat-B. That morning, as I was packing my things into HMPS plastic sacks, Dean came to my pad to say goodbye. We had a brief chat and he assured me he’d be fine. He seemed to have regained some of his old confidence. We hugged and then I was shipped out. I never saw him again.

However, a couple of weeks later, at my new prison, I received a letter from him written on familiar prison paper. It was full of local wing gossip about mutual acquaintances and changes to the regime. I have it here with me as I type this. Of course, I missed all the carefully coded warning signs. A matter of days later Dean was dead. It had been his farewell letter to me, worded carefully so the prison censors wouldn’t suspect what he was planning.

Gradually, I pieced together the story of his final days through letters from other cons. Since he’d been on heavy doses of medication for his various medical problems he had the opportunity to stockpile strong painkillers until he had enough to overdose. 

Writing to escape...
He evidently knew exactly what he was doing because according to one fellow inmate on the wing he had wandered out of his pad to take one last look around. When a con asked him if he was OK, he’d replied “Yes, I’m about to go.” And he did, within a few minutes, on the polished floor of the wing. Although the screws on duty tried to revive him, I was later informed that he was dead on arrival at the local hospital.

In his final letter, Dean included some of what he felt were his most meaningful poems. I’m not sure what the copyright rules are on this, but I doubt that he would care. As the last of the survivors of our little circle I want to share something from the otherwise lost writings of this dead prison poet who was also my friend.

Looking Through My Bars

I press my face between the bars,
A fitful breeze kisses me.
Flowers are in bloom
Their beauty marred 
By this loathsome prison.

The heat is rising,
I steel myself for another airless night
In this enforced sauna.
In the dark, I lay alone
With my thoughts.

All the things I took for granted,
Such simple pleasures.
Will I cope without them?
I have 18 years in here
To find out.

Exit Tense

To resist. Is it enough?
I need to have purpose.
I’ve been a father and carer,
A worker and lover,
A friend and a son.
In many ways I’m still a child,
Now I’m something else… 
A prisoner.

I have no direction.
Doomed to repeat 
The same flawed routine…
Weekly or weakly?
I can increase my knowledge
But I can no longer grow,
Heal or progress.

I just am…. existing?
But in someone else’s life –  
A marionette of pain.
Is it enough to want to just exist?

Exist tense
Exit tense.