18 June 2014
I’ve been in New Zealand laying the ground for future research on the impact that creative writing can have on reducing re-offending, both positive and negative. I plan to compare practice in the UK with work in New Zealand.
First off I was interviewed about my work on Radio New Zealand on the morning show Nine to Noon. My work is about using writing with prisoners for all the obvious benefits: literacy, expression, for the love of writing and the craft.
But principally, it’s about challenging pro-criminal thinking; using memoir to examine not just who you are but what you have done, to yourself and to others, because we become aware of ourselves from what we have done to others. And it’s about doing this work to support the work of probation, psychology, prison officers and education staff.
Morning tea at Arts Access Aotearoa
After the radio interview I was treated to a morning tea reception at Arts Access Aotearoa, chaired by Executive Director Richard Benge. I then ran a training session for around 20 participants, including writers, probation officers, Corrections staff and staff from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.
I took them through some of the exercises I take prisoners through, from first-contact writing warm-ups to the voices of their victims. One or two acknowledged that they would find my objectives difficult, awkward.
I do too. But for me the purpose of writing with prisoners has always been to assist in the process of making them less likely to offend, and this is one of the ways we do this.
In the evening, I went to a meeting of restorative justice practitioners. They told me that participants in restorative meetings often lack the desired language, a means to express themselves well enough to make the face-to-face meeting worthwhile. It is a process that requires a direct and honest language. Language like a window.
Writing exercises for offenders and victims
The result of my discussion with Wellington practitioners is that I will design some writing exercises for both offenders and victims. They will be encouraged to do as part of the two-hour session and in their own time. The hope is that they will be better able to express themselves in any face-to-face meeting.
I spent most of the following morning working with six women in the library at Arohata Women’s Prison. Using exercises, I wanted to prove to them that they could write creatively and thus I wanted them to have a piece by the end of the session.
We began with an automatic writing exercise, all of them thinking of a particular morning, responding quickly to ten nouns, light, sounds – all the senses – their hands, their hair, their memories of love and home.
Where and how to dig
Then I got them to write a list of seven emotions, and choose one and think of a time when it was dominant. I continued to tell them where and how to dig; setting them parameters but also allowing things to be open. The women were eager and diligent and concentrated. By the end of the session we had two poems that were virtually good to go and the bones of four others.
Then there was an impromptu workshop in Arohata’s Drug Treatment Unit. Jacqui Moyes, Prison Arts Advisor at Arts Access Aotearoa, and I walked down the long, forbidding corridor and were met in a room the size of a drama studio by 20 to 30 women, who greeted us with traditional Maori song and dance.
When they finished, they looked at me expectantly. So I told a story written by a young prisoner from Manchester who was a drug dealer and who came up with an allegorical way of describing the only occupation he'd ever had.
If addiction were an animal
I ran with the theme and asked the women if their addiction were an animal, what would it be?
Why? “Because it creeps up on you.” “It lives in a hole.” “Sheds its skin.” “Puts poison into me.”
In English jails, there is always someone in the room that fights me, whose only effort is disruption. I waited for them but there wasn’t anyone in the room like that in Arohata.
Since everyone had AWP stamped on their clothing, I asked if anyone could think of a way of using the letters to title a writing magazine and the answer was “Arohata With Pride.”
UK writer Michael Crowley has used creative writing with offenders and people at risk for the past 15 years to improve literacy, and changing thinking and behaviour. His book Behind the Lines includes 80 writing exercises, followed by discussion suggestions, to encourage reading, writing and thinking about the past and the future. It can be purchased on the Waterside Press website.
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