Month: December 2015

Wally Lamb & Writing Women’s Lives (week 10)

wally lambWeek-on-week it seems that our texts and topics for scrutiny are so topical. Just days after discussing the movie Dead Man Walking, California made news as its death penalty process was upheld by a federal courts appeal.[i] Two days before we discussed Guantanamo Bay poetry, Paris was tragically attacked and the world debated international terrorism. G-Bay was similarly in the news at that time because the last British prisoner to be held there was released.[ii] This week, just as we were about to explore Wally Lamb’s collection of short stories by female prisoners, the Tory MP Philip Davies controversially announced that “more women should be sent to prison to make them equal with men”.[iii] Though Davies’s remarks unsurprisingly created a commotion, our group’s comments today (which sadly had no women present) reminds us there is still no consensus as to how to deal with increasing numbers of female prisoners.

Just as when we deliberated prison art, today’s discussion wasn’t always
rooted in America specifically. Nonetheless, according to gender research in the US, “Women are the fastest growing population in the US prison system, outstripping men in all 50 states”.[iv] Like their male counterparts, African American female prisoners are disproportionately represented. Equally shocking, it is estimated that 85-90% of all women inmates in the US have been victims of abuse (sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence) prior to their incarceration.[v] Such abuses formed the basis of a number of the stories in Lamb’s book, Couldn’t Keep it to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institute (2004).

Autobiographical information has been given a fictional twist in this alice mcollection of short stories. It was agreed that this approach was used so these female authors could “come to terms with it [abuse] in a different way and in control”. We debated whether the form of the short story had been deliberately encouraged by Lamb.  I’m aware that there have been some interesting debates as to whether the short story is a form at whichwomen particular excel. The Nobel literature winner Alice Munro has suggested that the realities of women’s lives tend to lend themselves to the short story genre: “In 20 years, I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have to think about someone else’s needs. And this means the writing has to be fitted around it.”[vi] Though Monro was not acknowledging incarcerated women, the group felt short stories were simply more apt than poetry in this instance because there is “Too much to say [here] to put into a little poem”.

wally l 2We also debated whether Lamb had consciously steered these women towards writing about their emotions in order to create more empathy for them. Russ noted that creative writing classes will often encourage participants to write about “what hurts” because “you will do your best writing about it because you care about it”. However Russ also attested to the difficulties of persuading male prisoners to bear their soul in group settings (like a writing class). It was noted that a large number of the authors in Lamb’s book were serving lengthy or life sentences – as detailed in their bios – which may make the process of editing and rewriting easier. But moreover, we wondered whether it were possible to generalise that female prisoners would be more likely than male inmates to readily offer up personal stories?

In fact, today’s group regularly raised questions which we could not necessarily answer. We were aware of the dangers of making sweeping generalisations between genders, yet queried whether the law is harder or easier on women. Should the law be more lenient for women with backgrounds of abuse? Is it more shocking to see a group of girls acting violent because it does not fit with society’s assumption that women are less likely to be aggressive than men? Is incarceration harder for women than men, particularly in light of a “traditional mothering instinct”? Is this why rates of suicide and self-harm are higher among female prisoners? Should male officers be permitted to serve in all-female prisons?  We could offer no definitive answers to any of these questions, pointing towards the problems facing prison activists as they struggle to fight against soaring incarceration rates for women.

In the creative writing section today, Russ asked the group to convert a memory into fiction. He cited Mo’Shay’s powerful story in Lamb’s collection, querying whether it had been intentionally rewritten with an uplifting ending to counteract its distressing content. He asked the group to cast their minds back to aged 15, and to engage with their senses (writing down a song from that year; an item of clothing; a smell; a phrase; and, a food). They were asked to write about a specific incident from that era, but to rewrite it with an ending that they would have liked to have seen happen.


[i] Matt Ford, “California’s death penalty returns,” The Atlantic, 13 November 2015, [accessed 24 November 2015].
[ii] Dominic Casciani, Shaker Aamer: Last UK Guantanamo Bay detainee lands in Britain,” BBC News, 30 October 2015, [accessed 24 November 2015].
[iii] Jon Stone, “Tory MP Philip Davies says more women should be sent to prison,” The Independent, 20 November 2015, [accessed 24 November 2015].
[iv] “Women Prisoners,” The Clayman Institute for Gender Research (Stanford University), [accessed 24 November 2015].
[v] Julie Ajinkya, “Rethinking How to Address the Growing Female Prison Population,” Center for American Progress, [accessed 24 November 2015].
[vi] “Alice Munro on CBC Radio’s Morningside in 1978,” CBC Digital Archives, [accessed 24 November 2015].



Poems from Guantanamo Bay; an “Incredible” Collection (week 9)

gbThis week we discussed a collection of poems edited by the lawyer Mark Falkoff, Poems from Guantanamo; the Detainees Speak (2007). One participant noted that “IPP in this country is bad but at least we don’t torture them”. Given the detainees’ situation, our group found the writings to be quite “incredible”.

Though participants were all acutely aware of 9/11 and the War on Terror, we spent a few introductory minutes clarifying the role that Guantanamo Bay has played in America’s “crusade” for democracy and freedom, both home and abroad. The group were unanimous in their conclusions that it was “ridiculous” and “astonishing” that these men could be held without a trial or access to a lawyer, despite the exceptional circumstances of war.  The biographies listed before each poem – detailing inmates’ prior lives as charity workers, students, teachers – served to heighten sympathies further.

The group were unduly impressed by the quality of the poems considering the lack of formal MNESTYwriting lessons, as well as the wider struggles involved in creating and publishing the book itself. In an interview with Amnesty International Magazine (and also detailed in the collection’s introduction), Falkoff explains that detainees were originally not permitted pen and paper. Some inmates wrote poems on Styrofoam cups salvaged from meal times. They then “inscribed their words with pebbles or traced out letters with small dabs of toothpaste” and passed these “cup poems” from cell to cell.[i] A couple of these poems were included in the collection and one of our group stated such works implied “you can treat us like shit but you can’t stop us talking to one another”.[ii]

PENTEventually the military authorised writing materials and “for the first time poems could be preserved”. Nonetheless, most were initially destroyed because the Pentagon felt poetry “presents a special risk” to national security due to its “content and format.”[iii] We likened this to slaves in the cotton fields singing songs that carried coded messages about escape and rebellion (not that there was ever any evidence of such secret language among the G-Bay poetry). The Pentagon also heavily censored the poems that were eventually submitted for classification review. 22 were finally published in this collection.

Our group were sure that the authorities would not have permitted any particularly graphic poems (e.g. “about torture”) to be released. They were somewhat amused that one of the verses states “America sucks” and references “American pigs”.[iv] They wondered why the Pentagon would have consented to this piece being published, perhaps to deem the collection “authentic”? It was also ironically observed that this particular poem appropriated rap music (“Yeahhhhhhh!”), music which of course originated in the US and has a history of being denounced
by the authorities.

poems gbThe group voiced their surprise at the lack of anger in some of the poems; “are these the kind of poems you would write if you were snatched off the street?” Indeed, “I’d have written f*ck you!” It was noted how difficult it is in prison to not respond if someone “comes at you and wants to kick off”. Yet these poems imply these inmates are rising above their distressing circumstances, and in so doing revealing their humanity.

While I have my own selfish reasons for wishing to stimulate discussion about America and American prisons, I was keen that these groups may also have the potential to extend beyond American-centric discussion and even creative writing. The benefits of study and writing groups for (former) prisoners are extensive and I have documented this elsewhere on this blog. But it would be a bonus if we could stimulate conversations about topical issues more generally. I am not so naive as to assume that we can prevent re-offending and secure people jobs by referencing the news. But current affairs are an unavoidable part of our daily life and general knowledge can contribute to both personal and professional enrichment. In light of the tragic events in Paris just a couple of days prior to this group, we ended up in a passionate debate about the rise of ISIS stemming from involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the poems we read out loud entitled, “They Fight for Peace,” suggests peace itself can be a contradiction because “going to war for peace can fuel further conflict”.[v]


In the creative writing section today, we wrote poems in reply to some of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners in Falkoff’s book. Russ asked participants to think about their own experiences of incarceration, and whether there were times when they really needed “home”? He advised, “find something you really want to say and give these people hope”. To give just one brief example that was written:

All I want to say, is

One day you are going

To be OK

The tide will turn now

You’re having your say.


[i] Mark Falkoff, “Poems from Guantanamo”, Amnesty International Magazine, 12 December 2007, [accessed 24 November 2015].

[ii] Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost, “Cup poem 1 & 2”, in Mark Falkoff (ed.), Poems from Guantanamo Bay (Iowa City: Uni of Iowa Press, 2007): 35.

[iii] Mark Falkoff, “Poems from Guantanamo”, Amnesty International Magazine, 12 December 2007, [accessed 24 November 2015].

[iv] Martin Mubanga, “Terrorist 2003”, in Mark Falkoff (ed.), Poems from Guantanamo Bay (Iowa City: Uni of Iowa Press, 2007): 56.

[v] Shaker Abdurraheem Aamer, “They Fight for Peace”, in Mark Falkoff (ed.), Poems from Guantanamo Bay (Iowa City: Uni of Iowa Press, 2007): 20.

Dead Man Walking & its Complex Politics (week 8)

ch 4
Channel 4 Prison Night

On the Prison Night special that aired on channel 4 last week, prisoners voted for their favourite prison movie and questioned how realistic each of them were. While it came as no surprise that The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile took the top two spots, I did not expect Dead Man Walking to secure third place (despite personally being a fan of the film). This was reflected in the way the group today weren’t sure what to make of the movie.

HP bookI know my university class are always fascinated by the “reality” behind Dead Man Walking. We read excerpts from Helen Prejean’s book upon which the movie is based; her writing is powerful and emotive. Yet as I detailed in a piece written recently for The Conversation, prison movies are not necessarily popular because of their adherence to reality. If there were, why did Shawshank and Green Mile rate so highly? As I have learnt from the group – not just this week but in previous weeks – audiences exalt the classic prison-hero “getting one over on the system”.

Yet this does not happen so explicitly in Dead Man Walking. The lead character, Matthew Poncelet, does not conduct a

DEAD MAN WALKING, Sean Penn, 1995, (c) Gramercy Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
DEAD MAN WALKING, 1995, (c) Gramercy Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

breathtaking escape or play illegal music over the prison tannoy. Moreover the ending of the film is unusually complex. On one hand the state retains ultimate control of the prisoner by enforcing his execution in the closing minutes. The death penalty does not acknowledge that salvation is possible. On the other, Poncelet’s last-minute confession of his crimes suggests he has achieved redemption, hence is he defying the state in some way? Perhaps the state can be read as callous for pursuing the execution of a man who has accepted individual responsibility for his actions.

We considered that Dead Man Walking may have alternatively won popularity on Prison Night because of its unique number of viewpoints. A number of death row movies unashamedly wear their anti-death penalty politics on their sleeve (The Green Mile, david gThe Life of David Gale etc). Anyone who is familiar with Tim Robbins (the director of Dead Man Walking) and his then wife Susan Sarandon (Prejean) and actor Sean Penn (Poncelet), will be aware of their liberal reputations. Yet Dead Man Walking complicates matters by offering not just the perspectives of Poncelet and Prejean, but the victims’ families and even the victims themselves. One participant in the group today had been a victim as well as an offender, so sympathised that the film proffered these varying viewpoints.

When I teach Dead Man Walking in the university classroom, I usually divide students into two groups and prompt a competitive debate for / against the use of the death penalty. The class regularly follows the same pattern whereby students in the “pro” group groan and grumble, yet win the contest. While of course this may be linked to the superior debating skills of the students coincidentally put in that group each year, it serves to show that there are still some influential arguments that reign in the US in favour of death sentences. Sadly our group today had slightly depleted attendance. Had we had more participants, I would perhaps have conducted a similar debate. I am not concerned with people’s individual beliefs concerning such punishments, but rather am interested in why they may think the US may support it so vigorously when the UK doesn’t.

death p
The Economist, 2012

Indeed, we revealed to the group that in 1966, 42% of Americans supported the death penalty in a poll. By 1994, this statistic had risen to 80% (in line with the right-wing rhetoric of the War on Drugs) and today this has dropped to 61%.[i] The group were not particularly surprised by these statistics, perhaps in part because we had earlier referenced the “conservative state of Texas” as a focal point for   discussing the death penalty. When we asked what may be the ultimate premise behind the death penalty, we were informed that “it is to teach people a lesson, to give an example to the outside”; ironic given US murder rates show no signs of abating.

oj sTo close the discussion, we flagged the famous quote from Dead Man Walking that “aint nobody on death row with money”. The group believed that “no rich people are on death row because they can afford a lawyer”. Anyone who needs legal aid and a public defendant is “going straight to jail!” We digressed to celebrity trials such as that of Michael Jackson; conspiracy theories suggest his guilt was ignored at the expense of lucratively compensating his accusers. Similarly, OJ Simpson ended up going to jail years after his original trial “once he had lost all his money”. The group agreed that class underpins imprisonment in the UK too, “especially now benefits and soup kitchens are being cut”.

In the creative writing section, we were told to imagine someone close to us was on death row and that we needed to compose a letter to the judge asking them to spare their life.


[i] Andrew Duggan, “Solid Majority Continue to Support Death Penalty,” Gallup Poll, 15 October 2015, [accessed 15 November 2015].