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On Being a Writer in Residence in a Prison - 1/3

Today My Hand
by Michael Crowley author of The Man They Couldn't Hang: A Tale of Murder, Mystery and Celebrity. August 2010.

A residency as a writer in a prison is almost always arranged through the Writers in Prison Network. This is a small Arts Council funded body that established its first residency around twenty years ago. There are currently around fifteen residencies running in England and Wales. Contracts are usually for two years although occasionally some are longer. I’m coming to the end of my third and final year at HM Young Offender Institution (YOI) Lancaster Farms.

There is a familiar uniformity about all prisons; that’s the point of them. There is also, it has to be said, a degree of familiarity about prisoners; but each residency will be unique. Institutions do differ, populations are different and so are writers. I am atypical of writers in prison in that I was formerly a youth justice worker, going back into a young offender institution I had visited many times when I was a youth offending team officer. I was writing plays in the day job, gradually getting work produced, until I initially went part time and then left altogether to take up a couple of commissions. The residency came along and I felt like the job was made for me.

The first thing I noticed when I was given a set of keys to Lancaster Farms was how many of my old caseload was on the wings. Boys who I had known from the age of thirteen and younger shouted salutations from cell windows as I walked round the grounds (so much for all those interventions). At least I had a head start in getting established in the institution. For the first eighteen months I was lucky to have another writer in residence alongside me; playwright, journalist and broadcaster Beatrix Campbell. Joint residencies are rare, in our case it worked well. We worked independently yet collaboratively producing anthologies and organising performances of lads’ writing together. From the outset it was apparent that there was more than an appetite to write amongst prisoners; there was a need. Prisoners’ lives are full of conflict; with the state; with other individuals; with their families and with themselves. They may not necessarily always have great insight or vocabulary, but they have stories in abundance. From my first week to my last month, I was unable to get anywhere near working with all the lads who applied to me.

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