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An inmate writes about Ricky Tomlinson’s inspiring return to HMP Leicester

Ricky Tomlinson visited HMP Leicester last month, his first visit since walking free 43 years ago. A current inmate wrote this exclusive report for The Big Issue

David is an inmate at HMP Leicester. He had never written anything creatively until he got involved with a sci-arts project put together by Alistair Fruish, Leicester Prison writer in residence, producer Dorigen Hammond and the HMP Leicester Library called Space is the Place. What follows is his first published piece of work.

An unusual event recently took place recently at HMP Leicester. A former inmate came back to jail. But this was a little bit of a different visit.

In came award winning actor, author and well known political activist the great Ricky Tomlinson. As an inmate myself, I was given the honour of introducing the great man to a packed Chapel of both prisoners and staff alike.

The afternoon began with Ricky telling tales of his life’s ups and downs. I was astounded at the attention he commanded in a room full of inmates. He talked of the time he spent behind the very walls he now filled with laughter, about the injustice of his criminal conviction (after 30 years of protest he was in fact officially recognised by Amnesty International as being a prisoner of conscience).  He reminisced about his childhood and the struggles he and his family had faced, but his overall message was one of hope. He was a living testament that we all have the power and strength to succeed if we work hard and persevere.

Ricky told us he had never had an acting lesson in his life and this is where his work ethic with a sprinkle of luck had paid off. He had, he said, a love of writing. He talked of poetry and the stories he wrote whilst in prison and as a child, admitting that he would write things and tear them up afterwards for fear of ridicule from his brothers, because of his working-class roots. It made me think of Billy Elliot. Most of the audience empathised with him. He was keen to tell all the lads about the power of the written word and how it could help them if they just wrote down their thoughts and words as a form of release.

He also spoke of an old Governor, Norman Hill, who, he said, “changed my life. ” Hill told Ricky that he thought his imprisonment was wrong, saying that in his view he was a political prisoner. Ricky said this was the first time anyone had acknowledged this, as it was what he had thought all along and this was the reason for his protest. He gave Ricky a book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and urged him to read it. This book was the catalyst for Ricky’s future political views and his fight for socialism. It changed his life.

He was a living testament that we all have the power and strength to succeed

I have had the pleasure of reading this book which was recommended to me by the organiser of Ricky’s visit and HMP Leicester’s writer-in-residence, Alistair Fruish. I would like to congratulate him and the Prison Library for all the hard work they do empowering the lads with events like this, and forever urging the lads to read.

Later in the day I sat down with Ricky and he gave me the time to do a short interview. We talked music, about his early ventures into performing with his band. He played the banjo and still does. He talked of his inspirations, such as, Lonny Donnegan, and also his love of classical music – especially Pavarotti. I found Ricky Tomlinson to be a really warm friendly open man, who was obliviously still firmly rooted to his working-class background. I got a sense that although Ricky was obviously proud of his achievements and grateful for the breaks he received, he was slightly embarrassed by the wealth this had brought him. It seemed that it did not sit well with his opinions and fights for his social ideology. He justified this by saying he knew only too well what it was like to have no money, have debt collectors banging at the door and how having money gave the opportunity and platform to offer support to others, including the Labour Party.

He firmly believed that Jeremy Corbyn would make a great Prime Minister, and did not believe all the tabloid press stories. He was only too happy to share a little of his luck and fortune to help others, talking about the help and support that he was able to give to charitable causes.

Overall it was a fantastic, enlightening day. It is a testament to the Prison Service for allowing such events that really do have the power to change lives.