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The legacy of Penned Up: How prison literacy changed my life

Given a life sentence for GBH at the age of 29, all hope seemed lost for Steve Newark. But a pioneering prison literacy project helped Steve gain the self-belief, confidence and skills to turn his life around in front of the parole board

Wiltshire’s HMP Erlestoke hosted its third Penned Up festival this March. Held over two weeks, it featured numerous guest speakers from the world of literature offering inspiration, knowledge and creativity to the inmates. One guest speaker was Lord John Bird, MBE and founder of The Big Issue, there to talk about how he went from homelessness, to prison, to the House of Lords. Lord Bird kept his audience entertained with witty anecdotes, conveyed with much gesticulating and a full range of accents.

I was there to report on the talk and along with the other men in the room, I listened intently as Lord Bird explained how he hadn’t even picked up a book until a prison officer handed him one when he was 15 years old. That prison officer mentored him and eventually taught him to read and write, opening a whole new world of opportunities for him. It lit the fire for Lord Bird’s lifelong love affair with books and literature. He saw the effect it could have, and the difference it could make.

Essentially, that’s what Penned Up is about, helping men and women in prison to engage with the written word. It doesn’t matter if it’s introducing new people to books, helping to provide new reading experiences, providing advice and guidance to budding authors, or simply offering relief from the boredom of prison. There is something for everyone. That is why Penned Up is causing such a stir within the walls of our prisons and creating a legacy for itself. It offers new ideas and something new to talk about on the wings.

Penned Up is the brain child of David Kendall and Mark Hewitt. In 2017 they set out to discover if it was possible to hold a festival inside Erlestoke prison walls. A committee comprising inmates and staff was made up, a list of desired guests was compiled, invitations were sent out and slowly but surely, a festival began to take shape. The Penned Up in 2017 was a huge success, including guests like Charley Boorman, Billy Bragg, Charlie Mortimer, Erwin James and Noel “Razor” Smith. (Future Penned Up events included Tony Adams and Levi Roots.) People soon began to realise that they had created something that would continue to grow and spread throughout the prison system. The buzz word was LEGACY.

My personal experience of Penned Up is unique and would lead me full circle, back to the same room I had sat in as a committee member two years earlier. This time I’m watching Lord Bird as a freelance journalist commissioned to cover the event. My story has become entwined with Penned Up. Given a life sentence for GBH at the age of 29, all hope seemed lost. I battled away bouncing from prison to prison, engaging in courses and trying to work towards my eventual parole. Arriving in HMP Erlestoke in 2015, on what I hoped would be the final leg of my prison journey, my release was far from a forgone conclusion, I still needed to prove I was no longer a risk to the public.

It reignited my inner writer, the one that had been hiding within me since I was a kid in Epsom,

Prison continued, with each mundane day rolling into the next. That is until I started working on the prison magazine, The Manor. It reignited my inner writer, the one that had been hiding within me since I was a kid in Epsom. I threw myself into it with vigour and started to have pipedreams of a future in writing. I even started writing my autobiography.

As part of The Manor team I was invited to be a member of the newly formed Penned Up committee. At first, I took a backseat, content to just observe. But slowly I took on more and more responsibility for getting things done and making Penned Up run smoothly. Many assumed I was just doing it for personal gain, but in fact I wanted to help create something lasting that people could enjoy long after I’d made it to the other side of the wall. Something that could be used by others, to demonstrate their potential.

During the festival I noticed myself grow, both in confidence and as a person. I interviewed a couple of authors, in front of an audience of other prisoners. Quite a daunting task but I realised I was able to function easily alongside the public. My communication skills were sharpened, and I gained belief in myself. This self-belief, along with the many positive reports that came as a direct result of my helping to organise the festival, helped show the Parole Board that I didn’t need to be incarcerated any longer. In September 2017, after almost 9 years in prison, I was finally released.

Despite my release I wasn’t quite ready to put Penned Up behind me. The festival continued to flourish and evolve into something bigger. It was rolled out in HMP Downview and I was invited along as a guest, meeting the committee members and taking great pride in them viewing me as an inspiration. I too was flourishing and evolving.

I had butterflies in my stomach as I walked back through those foreboding prison gates.

When Penned Up returned to HMP Erlestoke this year I was invited back twice. The first time to interview Noel “Razor” Smith about his favourite true crime books. It was a strange feeling and I won’t lie, I had butterflies in my stomach as I walked back through those foreboding prison gates. I was put at ease when I was greeted by staff and former fellow prisoners and they were genuinely pleased that I was doing so well. Ten days later I was back as I was invited to return and write this piece. I had finally gone full circle. My new life started the day I walked out of that prison, I returned as a success, as a somebody, with my own business and a wonderfully supportive family, with my passion for writing opening new doors for me.

Lord Bird credits learning to read as the catalyst for the changes he made, being able to read and write allowed him to make a difference in people’s lives. I credit my writing with helping me to climb out of my worst situation and turn my life around. That’s the importance of literacy. That’s why I think Penned Up is so important, it offers the chance to find, explore and cultivate creativity. Used the right way, it’s life changing.