In 2021 Durham Book Festival worked with National Prison Radio (supported by Arts Council England) on content for prisoners inspired by the festival programme. We shared copies of our Big Read, My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay across all four Durham Prisons and via an audio book reading that was broadcast by National Prison Radio to 80K prisoners across England and Wales. Writers from the 2021 festival programme shared their creative writing tips on National Prison Radio and we are also running in-person writing sessions with prisoners in County Durham. Here, writer Lucie Brownlee writes about her experience working with a group of female prisoners in the region.
* All names (with the exception of my own) have been changed.
The library is too hot. The thermostat is stuck, and the men aren’t yet sure how to fix it. Heat belches out of pipes and fat column radiators. We can’t open a door for obvious reasons, and the windows are sealed shut, so we make tea and prepare the juice and biscuits for the women and hope the room will cool down before they arrive.
Jackie appears at the door, her eyes twinkling. She smiles at me and waves from the other side of the glass. I smile and wave back. At first, I don’t realise she’s a prisoner. I don’t know what I expected, but Jackie isn’t it. She’s done her make-up specially and styled her hair. She’s carrying a pile of books – The Handmaid’s Tale, Girl, Woman, Other, and a couple of erotica titles.
“I never read books before I came in here,” she tells me. “Now I can’t get enough of them. ‘Specially these ‘uns.” She holds up Forbidden Fantasies and throws her head back laughing.
Hayley and Tara arrive next. I say ‘arrive’. They announce themselves, striding into the space as if they own it. Which in a way, they do; I am their guest. They plonk themselves down without looking at me and admire the notepads and the Lemn Sissay books we have supplied them with.
“Can we keep these, like?”
“They’re yours,” I reply.
Then come Anne and Sylvia, two mouse-ish women who seem eternally confused as to why they are in prison at all. Of course, I don’t ask. It isn’t the thing, unless they offer it, and only one of them (Hayley) will, a couple of sessions later.
Finally, Reba and June. They sit together and say little, yet will studiously complete each writing task I give them. Reba will turn out to be an exceptionally gifted writer, who has reconciled the long time she will spend in prison by imagining herself as a flower, pushing up through a crack in a concrete yard – “if a flower can blossom in a hostile environment, why can’t I?”
They are all delighted with the juice and the biscuits. “I’ve put on two stone since I come in here,” Tara says, stacking four chocolate digestives on the table in a tower in front of her. “It’s all bloody carbs.”
“The food’s shit,” Hayley says. “Lucie, I mean really shit.”
Is that what they miss most? Decent grub? No – unanimously, it is their kids and their pets. They hustle to show me photographs on key fobs and pull back their sleeves to reveal tattoos of names and faces of loved ones. In most cases, they also reveal a latticework of old and new lacerations etched all the way their up arms, some covered in thick white surgical dressings. Is it the tattoos, or the self-harm they want me to see? I sense they are testing me, to see whether I’m shockable, or will judge them. I show them a photograph of Brucie, my dog. They all fall in love with Brucie and want to handle the photo of him. They pass it round to each other as if it were an ancient and precious artifact.
What does prison sound like? I ask.
“Keys jangling,” Jackie says. “Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It’s enough to give you PTSD.”
Nods of agreement. Hayley adds, “And the whistling. Mr X does it at four in the morning, up and down the corridors, just to piss us off.”
Keys signify both freedom and incarceration here. The ubiquitous jangling feels to me like a taunt.
“Prison smells like spice,” Jackie says.
“That’s evocative,” I say, “in view of what you were saying about food. The corridors filled with the smells of different spices…”
The women burst out laughing. “Lucie man! Not that kind of spice!”
I laugh along with them, embarrassed by my naivety, but they are generous in their ribbing.
I talk afterwards to Jane, the librarian who has skilfully co-ordinated my interactions with the women. “You know, one wrong decision and any of us could end up in here,” she says. “You, me – any of us.” It is a sobering thought.
I am with the women for three sessions in total, spread over three weeks. They bring me poems and prose they have written that they want me to read out or read to myself; they bring me letters of thanks for coming and for giving them space and encouragement to express themselves. They also bring me deep joy and a sense of true purpose; for why did I start writing in the first place, if not to confront and expunge my own demons? The written word can be the fiercest weapon of them all.
None of us wants the sessions to end. When the final gate is unlocked then locked again behind me, I inhale great lungfuls of air and hurry across the car park to my car. Driving home under a steady sleet of autumn leaves, I am changed. I miss the women and their stories and their spirits.
When it comes down to it, all anybody wants is a chance to be heard.