We’re a bunch of writers. Some, like Harry Josephine Giles (Scotland) and Jock Serong (Australia) are among the international contingent in Wellington for the NZ Festival’s Writers and Readers programme. Some are local writers and journalists. And some are women and men in Arohata and Rimutaka Prisons.
We’re all taking part in Prison Voices, an event organised by Writers and Readers with Write Where You Are, the Department of Corrections and Arts Access Aotearoa. We’ve caught two buses from Te Papa to the Upper Hutt prisons.
In the women’s session, there are around 15 women and 30 visitors. Similarly with the men. We spend a couple of hours together, sitting at tables with pen and paper, and being guided by our tutors, Pip, Nikki-Lee and William. We do two creative writing exercises, listen to the women prisoners read their work and then hear from some of the guest writers responding to their writing.
The women’s work is vivid, raw, sharp, soft, sometimes painful – and often witty. They write about the heat during this long hot summer; about family, friendship and love; about confinement.
Mutual trust and respect
The mutual trust and respect between tutors and women is clear. There is no compulsion to attend the Prison Voices event but they turn up, faces alight as they welcome their visitors and participate in this New Zealand Festival event.
Many of the women step forward to read their work, which they’ve developed over the eight workshops building up to the event. It feels like an incredibly brave and confident thing to do – something that any of us might find hard to do.
Sylvie Frigon, Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, attends the women’s session. Later, she says: “I was privileged to be part of such a well-crafted, ethically delivered initiative that provided a safe space for women in prison to share their beautiful writing with pride with people from the outside. They carved emotions into words and trusted us with them. Mihi to all the writers, inside and outside, the Write Where You Are team and the New Zealand Festival for building bridges, and the Department of Corrections for ennabling it to happen.”
Wellington children’s writer Pippa Werry attends the session with the men. Later, she tweets: “Thanks to the brave, honest and talented writers at Rimutaka Prison who delivered what already may be the highlight of @nzfestival's @NZFWriters programme - Prison Voices, and thanks to @ArtsAccessNZ and @CorrectionsNZ for helping it to happen!”
On the way out to the prisons on the bus, our “tour guide” William tells us what to expect and how to behave. He also tells the passengers about Write Where You Are. The following is part of his talk to the visitors.
Write Where You Are
Write Where You Are (WWYR) is a registered charitable trust. Most of our work, such as this workshop, is volunteered. The trust grew out of volunteer work we have been doing together in Arohata and Rimutaka prisons since 2014. To date, we have taught classes in Rimutaka Prison, Arohata, Upper Arohata, and we have also taught people doing community service outside jail. All of our teachers are practicing, published writers and experienced creative writing teachers.
Why we are doing this
The members of WWYA have different personal reasons for being involved in this work. For me, my reasons are largely selfish. I find it personally rewarding. I enjoy the teaching; I enjoy sharing my own love of words; and I enjoy the positive response to the work, which we generally get. I enjoy the value that the women place on this teaching. It helps me to value it also. Most of all I enjoy seeing the work that emerges. It always surprises me and it always uplifts me in some way. A prison is a difficult, problematic place. I always arrive feeling a degree of trepidation. But I always leave feeling uplifted.
I have had very few negative encounters with inmates of prisons since I started doing this work. I have had some, certainly. I have seen people lose their tempers, break down. But I have lost count of the acts of kindness, sensitivity and generosity I have seen. Weirdly, I find that prison is a place which tends to restore my faith in humanity.
What always amazes me is that in a place they don’t want to be, thrown together with people they didn’t choose to be with, cut off from friends and family, and bereft of so many of the luxuries of modern life (phones, internet, travel, and so on) the women of these classes time and time again create a space that is healing and good to be in, simply by coming together, acting with respect and kindness and applying themselves to constructive shared activity.
What we actually do
As much as possible, what we are doing today is going to be a recreation of what we do in class on an average day. So as much as possible today will be the answer to that question. Essentially though, we teach courses in blocks of five to ten weekly hour-long classes, depending on requirements.
We teach using group discussion, reading, writing exercises and one on one instruction. Exercises often spring board participants into working up longer or more developed pieces. Class participants work in all sorts of genres: memoir, poetry, fiction, essay. We often work with writers who already have an established writing practice.
What is it for?
I have observed in my own completely non-expert, layperson experience at least three different kinds of intervention going on in prisons: therapeutic (e.g. Drug Treatment Unit, counselling, psychologists), educational (e.g. the Howard League) and occupational (e.g. quilting, painting).
Creative writing, and the arts in general seem to sit astride these three kinds of intervention. Like quilting, it’s something constructive to do. It also encourages literacy by encouraging use of language and reading.
And, while we always stress that we are not therapists and have no training in this, it can feel like a therapeutic practice - a non-destructive way of expressing feelings and of working through issues. This is what participants in our creative writing classes often tell us.
None of the above lays claim to being scientific. It’s just anecdotal and subjective. But my hope is that creative writing is of use to the women and men who practise it - and that they each determine how it is useful to them.
Write Where You Are has a GiveaLittle page if you wish to support their work by making a donation.
Iona McNaughton is a children's writer and Communications Manager, Arts Access Aotearoa.