Category: Focus groups

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].

Stanley “Tookie” Williams and the Politics of Reading / Writing in Prison (week 7)

Blue rageWilliams was the co-founder of the infamous Crips gang who educated himself on death row and authored a number of books before being executed in 2005. His series of children’s books resulted in several nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature. As the discussion suggested this week, the case of Williams reveals fascinating viewpoints towards reading and writing while incarcerated. Each participant had been given a copy of Williams’s adult memoirs, published as Blue Rage, Black Redemption in the US and just Redemption in the UK, that charter his transformative journey from violent young gangbanger in a hostile social setting, through education and reform, to respected author who addresses
the root causes of crime.[i]

The death penalty was assigned to Williams in 1981, the first year of Reagan’s office as president. redemptionHis punishment represents the shift from liberal sentencing towards a wave of legislation that promised to “get tough” on crime. Indeed, he notes in Redemption that, “California’s criminal judiciary was handing out death penalties like government food stamps in a depression” (262). Moreover, ”Death row is constructed for punishment and execution, not reform” (294). The group were keenly aware of these dynamics, that death row arguably does not permit a full transition into a reformed character. Yet they contended that instead of challenging his redemption, his position on death row made his self-education and authorial achievements even more worthy and respected.

When starting to turn his life around, Williams contends that “I didn’t know why I was driven to study” (245).  This reinforces the higher or spiritual state of redemption that we have discussed in previous weeks. We acknowledged that a number of people may write in prison for sheer escapism, yet Williams wrote with a clear purpose: to dissuade young people from a life of crime. By the final pages of the memoir, it is implied that by occupying himself with study, and life in prisonsubsequently conveying anti-gang, anti-prison messages to young people through his books (deemed “successful” if judged by the quotes inside his book sleeves), writing had “saved” him. Despite his doomed status, he could commit his redemption to print, putting right what he had done wrong by turning his negative experiences into positive resources. Throughout Reagan’s two terms, not only did harsher penalties become standard (particularly for African Americans as a result of the so-called “War on Drugs”) but prison library budgets were cut and creative writing programmes were axed. We discussed how in the face of such adversity Williams’s publications were ever more revered, and his act of writing became a politicised act.

Russ noted that similarly in the UK today only a handful of Writers-in-Prison are left at prisons from an initial network of 20.When Russ himself was a WIP, his instructions were simply that prisoners should not glorify crime. However this raises queries when creative writing is arguably easier when your subject is something you are familiar with. We wondered whether writing about kids bookscommitting a crime, then being compelled to show remorse at the end, suggests you are somehow “writing to order”. Perhaps this also implies that writing is still seen by the authorities as some kind of penitent act  for the incarcerated (“I am so sorry…”). We introduced the concept of the literary canon, and the fact that prison writers, particularly those with little formal schooling, have traditionally been excluded from the canon, suggesting the canon is “white”, “safe” and “middle class” (a double bind for Williams who was not only a prisoner but also African American). Yet the group were adamant that it was simply “wrong” not to consider incorporating such authors.

We then moved away from the act of writing itself, to consider the act of reading instead.  Discussions of the prison libraries where participants had served time revealed that true crime AmericanPsychoBookbooks tended to be the most popular (despite the fact that prisoners were discouraged from writing about it!). Does this speak to prison governors and management who think reading at any cost is imperative? We wondered whether Williams’s adult memoir had the potential to be “dangerous” if not read in full; the book is a conversion narrative that relies on the reader consuming both the violent first half, and the apologetic and redemptive second section. Russ noted that the controversial novel by Bret East Ellis, American Psycho, was catalogued in one of the prison libraries where he had worked, yet inmates had not been permitted to watch the film adaptation because it had an 18 rating.[ii] Once again, this arguably speaks volumes about how reading is still considered to be a valued and pedagogical activity.

To shake things up in the creative writing section today, Russ brought along some “story cubes” and the group were challenged to write a story using “an arrow”, “a sunflower”, “a block of flats, story cubesand “a fire”. The creativity and inventiveness of the group never cease to amaze me (e.g., a character called “Arrow”). We were also introduced to the idea of “six-word stories”, a phenomenon that is supposedly linked to Ernest Hemingway being challenged to write a story in just six words and producing: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”.[iii] We were reminded that in many ways creative writing is founded upon “what ifs”; what if this / that had happened to that baby? We spent the rest of the session brainstorming six word stories and collectively filling in the gaps.

[i] Stanley “Tookie” Williams, Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir (Pleasant Hill, CA: Damamli, 2004) and Redemption: From Original Gangster to Nobel Prize Nominee (Preston: Milo Books, 2004).

[ii] Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (NY: Vintage Books, 1991).

[iii] Josh Jones, “The Urban (Legend) of Ernest Hemingway’s Six Word Story,” Open Culture, 24 March 2015, [Accessed 27 October 2015].

On (Not) Painting Prison (week 6)

Though these groups are primarily concerned with writing as an artistic output, it was interesting to consider American prison art this week and the comparisons and contrasts with a different creative form. The class was slightly challenged by a lack of attendance (I know life is complicated and busy) and also by my complete lack of a voice (long story, but it’s amazing how you can get by with gestures). We commenced by showing a short video, available on youtube, entitled, “A Curator’s Reflection on a Decade of Art by Michigan Prisoners”[i]. As we watched a sequence of paintings and pencil drawings,  the narration overhead (by artist Janie Paul), informed us that in 2010 when the video was made, 25% of the world’s prisoners were in the US; one out of every 32 Americans were in prison, on probation, or on parole; and, that 55% of all those incarcerated are African American. We also looked at the gallery available online from the Prison Arts Coalition, an incredible resource for “those creating art in and around the US prison system”.[ii]


One participant had done painting themselves during their sentence and confirmed that they had looked forward to it more than the gym and other activities. Reflecting on the paintings from both the Michigan prisoners and the PAC, he commented that “in a lot of the pictures, their lives have been taken away so there’s a lot of gloom” while others are “trying to draw pictures of a better time in their life”. Indeed, sentimentality was a strong theme with numerous paintings of what are presumably portraits of loved ones. We agreed there is a tendency for the outside world to expect paintings of prison life itself from incarcerated artists, much like the popularity of prison films being predicated on a curiosity about life inside. The prisoner himself arguably wants to look outwards and escape from the harsh reality of daily life. Janie Paul helps to explain this: “I believe that some of us reach back for memories that can sustain us and come up with longings […] prison artists forge a way for the soul to find habitation in a place that is inhabitable”.[iii]

Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

We did ask if any of the pictures viewed were particularly “American” in any way and it was noted that race was an oft repeated theme. But much of the discussion today centred on the benefits of painting while incarcerated. It was clearly viewed as a therapeutic activity which can “bolster your self esteem if you are praised for your work” and can encourage you to “escape from bleak surroundings”, as detailed by Paul and illustrated by Doc in Escape from Alcatraz (discussed a couple of weeks ago). Once again, the docile body was raised, contending that a need to create something for oneself under such restrictive circumstances can be deeply satisfying. I was especially interested to hear that art can serve practical and commercial purposes too. Escape from Alcatraz was again cited because art literally helped the prisoners; they make papier-mâché masks to put in their beds and temporarily hide their breakout.

Moreover, the group offered stories of friends who had realised they had a talent for painting / drawing and sold portraits of friends and families in return for cigarettes; art has economic currency inside. There were also tales of buying paintings to decorate your cell. Russ noted that the “inventiveness and creativeness in prison never ceases to amaze me”, whether sparking a homemade cigarette lighter, or matchstick art. I learnt that matchstick sculptures did not remain small-scale nor solely artistic as you might expect, but matchsticks were used in prison to build TV cabinets and DVD holders. The cover of Russ’s edited collection of writings from inside, Burn, is in fact a photograph of an inmate’s sculpture. An incredible youtube video entitled “Toothpaste and toilet paper Jesus and other prison art” speaks to this inventiveness.[iv]Burn 2

The Prison Arts Resource Project (stemming from the William James Association Prison Arts Project) is a wonderful supply of studies assessing art programs in US prisons, with the general consensus that they are of enormous rehabilitative use.[v]  Yet the future of art in prison in this country seems bleak, a victim of the coalition government’s budget cuts. A Guardian article last year detailed how prison governors have been ordered to slash costs by £149 million annually.[vi] This is despite a report published just a few months earlier by the Arts Alliance which made a strong case for “innovative projects that have a track record of engaging offenders … how music, visual arts and creative writing can support an offender’s journey to a crime-free life”.[vii] The Koestler Trust and other non-for profits continue to fight along these lines. The US has for the most part followed similar trends over the past twenty years, struggling to save the arts in prison. That said, it seems tentative progress may be taking place in certain states. In California, a state with one of the highest prison populations (according to numbers incarcerated per 100,000 adults), the Arts-in-Corrections program has just been reinstated after having its budget slashed in 2003. The AIC receives financial support from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to offer singing, theatre, writing and painting classes.[viii]

CW photoFor the creative writing element this week, Russ led us down a logical path of considering colours and brainstorming word association with them. The task was then to take two colours and write a poem engaging with some of the related words. One of the participants had earlier commented that  “you may get bored half way through a painting”, yet writing could sometimes be “quicker”. Indeed, today’s productivity was fruitful and rapid.

[i] [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[ii] [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[iii] [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[iv] [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[v] [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[vi] Alan Travis & Steven Morris, “Prisons governors ordered to cut costs by £149m a year”, The Guardian, 29 April 2014, [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[vii] See Tim Robertson, “Arts in Prison”, The Guardian, 25 November 2013, [Accessed 13 October 2015] and Arts Alliance, Reimagining Futures, [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[viii] See the official AIC website for more information, [Accessed 13 October 2015] as well as

Shawshank; Can Hope Set You Free? (week 5)

When teaching The Shawshank Redemption, I have yet to meet a student who is not (initially) enthused with it, while my mother regularly cites it as a way of “tackling life”. The Turning Point group this week were similarly ardent in their reviews, calling it “amazing” and claiming that “even if you have seen it before, you always want to sit and watch it again”. But what is it about this movie that originally flopped at the box office before making its breakthrough on video and, over twenty years later, still regularly puts it in the top lists of best ever films, despite not purporting to show “reality”?[i]

No one was aware that the film was based on a Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Within minutes the group were submersed in a detailed discussion of how exactly we define the “redemption” in the title of both book and film. One participant contended that it was “Something you have done in the past and feel sorry for it”, while another argued for the word’s explicit links with Catholicism. We concluded that there were in essence two definitions. On the one hand redemption is the act of being saved. But on the other, it is the way in which you may sacrifice something in return for something else (“redeeming a shawshanksupermarket voucher!”). There was also a mini debate about the differences between redemption and forgiveness; perhaps “one is holy and comes from a higher place, while the other is spiritual but on ground level”. To some degree this is shown in the film’s poster with Andy holding assuming a Christ-like position in a baptismal rain. And certainly there is a sense of redemption (or “karma”, “divine justice”) in the exposure of the corrupt warden and freedom of the wronged inmate. But there was no consensus as to who exactly is redeemed in the film; is the notion of redemption “available” to all the prisoners in Shawshank? Or is the film’s universal message of “hope” aimed at saving the viewer from a more metaphorical imprisonment?

Though redemption was a key concept underpinning both novella and film, we explained a number of the most evident changes made between the two. It was agreed that the film made no reference to Red’s heinous crimes (like the book does) in order to ensure the likeability of key characters. Films have a box office to consider after all. Moreover, Brooks was made into a bigger character in the film in order to reveal the dangers of becoming institutionalised. Simultaneously however, we noted the elements of the “prison genre” that remained in both written and filmic forms, such as a smart protagonist. And while referencing genre, we noted a number of the likenesses between Escape from Alcatraz (studied last week) and Shawshank. The group were particularly intrigued by the idea that prison movies (and indeed books) often contain an older character who cares for a pet. It was suggested that if you show kindness or friendship in prison it can be exploited. However, being kind to a pet in a movie can reveal personality without being abused by other human beings. In this way, prison movies may subtly touch upon reality (not in terms of owning a pet per se, but the potential manipulation of kindness).

Starred upThe film was praised for capturing the “utterly terrifying” moment that you arrive in a prison for the first time, “when you hear that bar slam and sit in your own room crying” (along these lines, if you haven’t seen the UK prison film Starred Up, then it is well worth watching!). And in discussing the “reality” of the narrative, one participant agreed with Red’s statement that rehabilitation is “just a made up word”. He elucidated that it is technically a lie to say you are completely reformed; “you can plan on being good, but you never know what is going to happen in life”. Another contributor agreed that “once you are in the system, it’s so easy to remain there”. While it was clear that the film’s unrealistic moments were overlooked in favour of its “feel-good factor”, certain moments were flagged as being implausible, primarily the “laughable” distribution of beers for the roof workers.


There was also some conversation about hope being unfeasible. The famed tag line of The Shawshank Redemption is “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free”. We continued our debate from last week concerning “docile bodies” and revisited the notion that “there are some things you can’t take from a man in prison, and one of them is his thoughts”. Another participant continued that hope is “something the system can’t take away from you – if you have hope in your head then it makes you less of a prisoner”. There was some agreement that if you don’t have hope, then you have “nothing”. However it was concurrently noted that hope “fucks you up” in some circumstances. Once again, we returned to the IPP prisoners for whom hope may be “no friend” and whereby you “can’t allow yourself to hope”. In week one we probed the American Dream and returned to it again here to suggest that the concept is predicated on hope itself. As we moved on to creative writing (with an emphasis today on metaphors and similes), Russ asked the group to write a poem about “what is hope?”. As food for thought, he read a poem from his edited collection, Burn: Writing from Inside by the Writers of HMP Humber (published by Hull-based Wrecking Ball Press in 2015). The title of the verse is “Hoping”:

Hope is an exit

When you’re stuck in a hole

Hope is a light

Deep down in your soul

Hope is a dream

When you’re sleeping away

You wish not to wake

You’re enjoying your stay

Hope is an angel

That you don’t want to touch

If she flies away

The pain is too much

So we hide from some hopes

They seem so far away

But my angel of hope

Will come back some day[ii]

[i] It currently ranks number one on the IMDB and number four for Empire magazine. See and [Accessed 7th October 2015].

[ii] Russ Litten (ed.), Burn: Writing From Inside by the Writers of HMP Humber (Hull: Wrecking Ball Press, 2015): 63.

Discussing & Describing “Freedom” (week 1)

Commencing fieldwork is simultaneously exciting and terrifying in equal measure. When months, if not years, of planning have gone into dealing with grant bodies, ethics, authorities, as well as ground-level preparation for the groups themselves, the pressure is high. Despite some scheduling hiccups, the opening session left me happy as to what future path the course may take. Indeed, in this initial group, the contributors were eager to meet one another, united in their enthusiasm for the Turning Point project. My fears that no one would want to talk were soon forgotten (replaced by a realisation that it is easy to digress!), and their enthusiasm for discussing America set a precedence that I hope will be repeated in all 24 weeks.


No one in the group had ever been to the US and there was some early discussion as to whether they were permitted with criminal records (in fact, if you have been convicted of certain offences you are ineligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Program). Yet they all had much to say when asked what sprang to mind when they thought of the country: “corruption”, “rap”, “guns”, “burgers”, “the Statue of Liberty”, “New York City”, and “terrorism”. Moreover, when asked about their understanding of the American Dream, they responded immediately with “freedom, it’s the land of the free”, “no problems” and “paradise, your own bit of land”. There were some problems in grasping the idea that freedom is written into the Constitution. That is to say, not difficulty in understanding the existence of national charters, but problems in accepting that a country in which liberty is so deeply enshrined in the psyche and official statutes, that it could then be responsible for problematic wars, native American slaughter, slavery and gun violence.

Though participants were less familiar with notions of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, they were quick to identify the potential dangers and benefits inherent in both. As a result of the preliminary discussion, two points sprang to mind that are worth flagging. Firstly, I was interested that nearly all participants made regular references to film; they continuously drew parallels with events or topics in Hollywood movies seemingly as a point of reference for “real-life” issues. (Perhaps we primed them to talk about film in our introductory comments, though we did also explain that we would be studying prose, music etc.) Secondly, in line with the idea that America may be exceptional in a number of ways, their perception of the US prison system was that it was much harsher than in the UK, for example with stricter sentences and more “predators”. Certainly, one person in the group noted that they would likely have received a life sentence long before now if they lived in America. I am interested to see if both these dynamics remain in play throughout the upcoming weeks.


I have had a couple of colleagues ask me why I am advocating a creative writing element to the group, rather than merely conducting focus groups that generate discussion on American society and culture. In short, I think the creative component assists in encouraging participants to return week on week, but more importantly, it has a proven effect on reducing re-offending. I have observed Russ’s previous work as a Writer in Residence at HMP Humber and the positive engagement from participants was plain to see. The therapeutic power of reading groups for prisoners is well-documented; scholars argue that such meetings are important for acquiring practical skills and life-awareness aptitudes. Similarly, creative writing in prison has been linked, even in small ways, to sparking longer-term goals of redemption.[i] Though the plans for the project were amended slightly and we are now working with a group of ex-offenders rather than prisoners themselves, it is our hope that this project may instil a passion for thinking and studying that may, in similar ways (skill development, critical thinking etc) reduce reoffending. It could be argued that such opportunities are similarly valuable to those who have recently been released and are now service users at centres such as Turning Point. If participants are led to write about their reflections of America – alongside any personal or other topic they may wish to document – it may still provide me with materials for analysis.


So as we moved from the discussion into the creative writing in this first session, Russ asked everyone to take a few moments to individually brainstorm any words or phrases they associate with the concept of “freedom”. Though some hesitated that they might be judged on what they produced, we were quickly reminded that “the great thing about creative writing is you can’t do it wrong”. While more than one participant noted the classic American image of the “open road”, there were also several references to nature in some forms as well as laws (or lack thereof). In the course of these blog posts I don’t want to over share the writing we produce as we are already planning an edited collection of works. That said, I feel compelled to impart the very first poem written collectively by the group, entitled “Freedom”:

To walk alone but to stand together

Down the boulevard of opportunity

Walking through any kind of weather

To the land of hope and liberty


Fresh air and sunshine all around

No laws, no weapons, no discrimination

Feeling safe together on the same ground

Everyone becoming just one nation

[i] As this project started evolving in my mind back in 2012, I read a piece in The Guardian about the Writers in Prison Network. The co-director noted in the article, “It’s pretty simple. There are 87,000 people in prison today. A handful will be coming out on a street near you soon. Would you like them better or worse than when they went in?” Just a few days ago, new research published by the Ministry of Justice suggested that “offering people in prison opportunities to aspire to further their education makes them less likely to re-offend on release”. See Hazel Davis, “How writers in prisons empowers inmates,” The Guardian, 13 September 2012, [Accessed 1/10/2015] and the Press Release on the Prisoners’ Education Trust website, 10 September 2015, [Accessed 1/10/2015].