Event: creative writing in prisons

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23 October 2020

Paul Dance is a Creative Writing teacher at HMP Littlehey, and a 2019 winner of a PLA Outstanding Teacher award. In this webinar, he speaks with Charlie Weinberg, Executive Director of Safe Ground. They talk about the outcomes of creative programmes in prisons, the constrictions of course formats, and creative arts as an emotional outlet.

Listen to the recording on SoundCloud

Both Paul and Charlie agreed that it’s the process far more than the outcome that matters in teaching creative writing and running creative arts workshops. People develop their skills and themselves through self-expression and the autonomy of each person to decide the direction of their work.

It’s not about getting a right answer, it’s about achieving something that’s good for you – Paul

The drive to engage in the creative process extends well beyond the classroom for some prisoner learners. Whilst Paul acknowledged that one of the reasons people enjoy his class is because it takes them beyond the prison walls, allowing them forget where they are, many also continue writing in their cells. Paul often provides support and feedback on work learners have done in between classes – and even once the course has ended. His classes and learners have won the Koestler, and other awards.

You can see people changing their attitudes. It releases them from those feelings of mundanity and drudgery of prison life. It allows people to escape and express themselves – Paul

One recurring theme of Paul and Charlie’s discussion was the need to provide appropriate materials and feedback for all levels of learners; courses for learners with no former qualifications and a lower level of literacy must still be interesting and engaging, and avoid infantilising materials.

There are people in prison with big aspirations… they may have no educational qualifications so far, but we’ve had people go on to do degrees in Creative Writing, English and various other subjects – Paul

To end the webinar, Charlie led a brief story-telling game, where participants unmuted themselves and took turns to add a line to the story chain. It took a dramatic turn…

Charlie: And then the sun came out and it stopped raining

Paul: He took of his galoshes and walked through the door

Tom: Sadly, the toast was burning as he spoke

Lindsay: He put the kettle on

Melanie: Toast had never been his thing anyway

Nikki: He couldn’t decide whether he wanted to have butter or jam

Helena: Just as he was making up his mind someone walked through the door

Anne: And shot him through the back of the head.

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Throughout lockdown, the Prisoner Learning Alliance has been hosting webinars with individuals and organisations working in prison education. Could you speak about a project or theme you’re interested in or working on? Please contact Helena to find out more.

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