A few years ago, I led a creative writing course at HM Prison Rochester, in the south of England.
A group of twelve or fourteen prisoners, aged 18 to 21, took part. We worked for a couple of hours every morning, round a big table at the back of the prison chapel. The project led to the publication of a book of poems by the prisoners. They put on a performance to other inmates. And I remember the courage, humour and honesty of the men who stood up to read their poems cutting right through the restlessness of some in the audience who had come along thinking their poetry might be a bit of a joke.
So by the end, it felt like quite a successful project. And I remember the very beginning being important.
I wanted to find a way for everyone taking part to introduce themselves, while knowing that young men in prison might not want to say anything too personal. So I suggested a sort of game.
I said we were going to send a rocket into space, and asked the prisoners to think of one thing each, to put on the rocket to represent themselves.
I started. I told them I’d put a leaf from the oak tree behind the house where I grew up. And the man next to me got the idea straight off. He said, “I’ll send my eyes…because when you’re in prison they’re the most precious thing you’ve got.”
After that, hardly anyone hesitated before chosing something to put on the rocket.
“I’m going to send the spikes off my running shoes because when I was sixteen I was the best sprinter in my school.”
“I’ll put a photograph of my son.”
“I play music and I’ve recorded stuff. So I’ll send a CD of my songs.”
The game worked. Everyone used it to say something with some truth in it.
Then it came to the last prisoner in the circle – quite a pale man, a bit smaller than the others. And he said, “My name is Sten, from Estonia. I am five months in this country and five months in prison. What I will put in this rocket is MYSELF. Then it will be a good way to get out of this prison!”