Workshop inspires creative writing at Arohata Prison
27 January 2015
A creative writing workshop, run by UK writer Michael Crowley and organised by Arts Access Aotearoa, inspired a pilot creative writing project for prisoners in Wellington’s Arohata Prison from July to November 2014.
The pilot project was led by award-winning Wellington writer and teacher Pip Adam, one of the 16 workshop participants.
Pip, who has volunteered in prisons for the past 18 years, was asked two years ago if she could run a creative writing and reading group at Arohata Prison.
“I was too busy at the time but then last year, Arts Access Aotearoa invited me to take part in Michael Crowley’s workshop in Wellington,” Pip says.
“Michael talked a lot about the rehabilitative effects of writing. When he spoke about writing as a tool to build self-awareness and empathy in a prisoner, it reinvigorated my interest.”
Creative writing a tool to change thinking
Michael Crowley has used creative writing with offenders and people at risk for the past 15 years to improve literacy, and change their thinking and behaviour. His handbook, Behind the Lines, published in 2012, is based on this experience.
After the workshop, four of the participants – Pip Adam, William Brandt, Hinemoana Baker and Anahera Gildea – formed the Prison Writing Collective.
What Pip intended to be an eight-week pilot in the main wing of Arohata Prison extended into a 16-week pilot. Michael continues to be “a great cheerleader”, she says.
“I Skype Michael quite frequently. He’s been a vital sounding board and is very generous in the way he shares his knowledge and wisdom.”
Fellow New Zealand writer James George, who teaches creative writing to men in Auckland Prison, has also been generous in passing on his knowledge, Pip says.
She also praises Corrections staff and says they were supportive, provided positive feedback and sometimes joined in the class. Tracey Wernecki, the Programme Co-ordinator, was vital in the process, providing encouragement and guiding Pip through the protocols.
Writer, teacher and mentor
Pip has a PhD in creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University and received an Arts Foundation New Generation Award in 2012. She also teaches at the International Institute of Modern Letters and Massey University, and is a mentor on the Whitireia Creative Writing Programme.
Any challenges she faced with the pilot project are seen as something positive. “It’s what pushes you as a teacher. The challenges were never huge and in fact, they made me work harder as a teacher.”
One of the challenges was working with the fluctuating prison population. Altogether, Pip worked with nine women. However, sometimes there would be two women in the class; other times there would be four or six women.
“The library is an oasis for the women,” she says. “It’s a great resource and many of the women are voracious readers, who read broadly.”
Need to be flexible and "think on feet"
She started teaching, thinking it would all go well as long as she worked to a set plan. “But I found out very quickly that I needed to be flexible and think on my feet. There were different levels of literacy and life experiences in the group and I had to read the room. When things weren’t working, I had to respond quickly and change what I was doing.”
Initially, she says, the women resisted changing the way they wrote but after a couple of weeks, most were keen to change and experiment.
“I was excited by the quality of their writing and seeing this fresh, new voice emerging. The work they created was emotionally intelligent and well-expressed.”
A low-cost, effective artform
Creative writing is a low-cost, effective artform to teach in prisons, Pip says. All you need are paper and pens, and prisoners can continue their writing in their cells.
“There’s a letter-writing culture in the prison and the women often write poems to include in letters to their family,” Pip says. “Some of the women in the group had written a lot.”
Following the success of the pilot, the Prison Writing Collective hopes to teach a 12-week, stand-alone creative writing programme in the Drug Treatment Unit at Arohata Prison.
“The programme we’re designing would reinforce the therapeutic work they do in the unit,” she says. “It’s something we would do as a group – the four of us teaching in two separate spaces.”
The four writers also plan to develop a template or workbook of plans and exercises that can be adapted and used by others teaching in prisons around the country.