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Penned Up: Prison literature festivals give much-needed life beyond the cells

Penned Up's David Kendall says his events give a space for honesty and openness, and the prisoners and the speakers rise to that

Why run a literature festival in a prison?

Aren’t the majority of people in prison barely literate? There are some who need literacy support, but most are just not practised readers. I could see the need. Books and reading can give people headspace. A library orderly in HMP Wandsworth told me people ask for a book to “get their head straight”. If you can get the focus to read you can get the mental agility needed to negotiate prison life. You can’t fix people – people fix themselves – but the arts give people a chance to look at their own lives critically, and see other lives unlike their own.

Prisons are sterile places – ideas go in circles. Bringing in new speakers refreshes people’s attitudes and thinking. Nowadays there have been a couple of other arts festivals in prisons: Leicester, and Stafford – but back in 2015 there was just HMP Parc, which has a long-running link with Hay Festival, and HMP Thameside, which runs regular author events. But I wanted more than that. In the end I corralled an old friend, Mark Hewitt (director of Lewes Live Literature), and said, “Why don’t we do something at HMP Lewes?”

Prison is an intense space.

That first Penned Up was a leap of faith for everyone. To have a two-week festival with speakers, all of whom need escorting to and from the gate, in a place where there are no mobile phones, and movements are restricted. Where at any point events can be cancelled because of a disturbance. The organising is much more than deciding who you would like to invite. That first festival gave us a name and a model of working that we’ve stuck with in the following four years and six festivals in three very different prisons: Lewes, Downview and Erlestoke.

Prison is an intense space. Social media doesn’t distract people but neither will they automatically give you their time. The events give a space for honesty and openness, and the prisoners and the speakers rise to that. At Lewes one of the men asked the speaker, “Why come into a prison?” That one question opened up a larger discussion about how we expect prisoners to be, about who they really are.

The festival committee (of prisoners and staff) decide who to invite. Most will never have been to an author event. We want them to have choice, not to shove authors their way. Sometimes they have no idea who but they know the area they want to hear from. Someone who has written about mental health, such as Cathy Rentzenbrink, or crime fiction like Dreda Say Mitchell. Life is what most of the prisoners are interested in, even when we are talking about fiction. When Kit de Waal visited, it was her personal relationship with adoption and fostering that touched the men. The committees have invited, and had, Levi Roots, poet Scroobius Pip, TV presenter Charley Boorman and Billy Bragg (still hoping for Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers) among others.

It is easy for offenders to become institutionalised,

Penned Up has run in three different prisons: Downview is a women’s prison, Lewes, a local with a high turnover of prisoners and in Erlestoke, where most are serving long sentences and who struggle to build enthusiasm.

Dann Hobbs, education manager at HMP Erlestoke, said the event brought “an element of extraordinary, something different in the community that is usually regimented and regular”. He added: “It is easy for offenders to become institutionalised, not so easy to hear passion, embrace change, rehabilitation and difference.”

We work hard on the programme’s copy to make sure it will appeal to people who may never have heard of the speakers. “Nah, Dave. No one’s going to come to that. What the fuck is that about?” This is often the first time the prisoners have had to deal with lengthy meetings, discussion, and the endless details of festival planning. There is still a wing and a prayer about some events but we have had many unexpected successes.

We had invited Charlie Mortimer, author of Dear Lupin. The event got off to a hesitant start, and then Charlie revealed that he had been diagnosed with Aids back in the 1980s. The library was silent and it felt like everyone was holding their breath. This could have been an honesty too far, but then one man leant forward and asked Charlie how he’d felt on the diagnosis. Charlie replied: “It was like a death sentence.” The man nodded, and said that’s how he’d felt when he got his life sentence. And an unexpected bridge was built.

You come in here and you lose hope. This changes that.

At the end of each Penned Up we get the chance to ask what change it has made to the prisoners involved. People love individual events but it’s also the process of being part of the committee that means something. One of the women said: “You come in here and you lose hope. This changes that.”

David Kendall is patron of reading at HMP Erlestoke


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