Penned Upis a two-week literature festival organised with and for those in prison.But I’ve not set foot in a prison since March 23 last year. How could we put together something that still contained some of the elements that had made Penned Up so successful over seven festivals?
We needed a way to connect with people in prison. Make them feel part of something. Engaging with and making art is a great leveller. Penned Up would have to adapt. My co-director Mark Hewitt and I talked it through, and decided on a series of weekly art challenges running from December through January. Two months, rather than two weeks.Our very first Penned Up had been in Lewes prison (our name given to us by that first committee). Back then we were just trying to prove it could be done, that people in prison would be interested, and authors and artists would come.
This time, working from the outside, it felt as if we were the ones that were cut offRunning Penned Up in a prison during a lockdown would present a different set of hurdles. Lewes has some pluses, it has an excellent library – you always want to work with a prison with a good library – and in lockdown the library would again be key. Much of the usual festival would be missing: the rowdy committee meetings, the exchange of ideas, getting a feel for the mood of the place, the tightrope of whether an event will be a success or would even happen. Prison regimes are subject to sudden changes. This time, working from the outside, it felt as if we were the ones that were cut off.
We chose a wide range of writers and artists during Penned Up. Each prisoner who responded to a challenge would receive feedback from the issuing artist. But while there are many people in prison who are creative, or will take a risk by putting their work out to be seen, many won’t. Most of us take in art rather than put it out. Our live events had a quarter of the prison coming to see the most popular speakers.Lockdowns have taken income away from hundreds of Big Issue sellers. Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription. The challenges started around the time Small Axe premiered on TV, and we knew there was a real buzz around those films. We contact one of the writers, Courttia Newland, who had run a workshop at a previous festival. We arrange for the prisoners to send questions we can put to him, which can then be sent back in and distributed via the prison newsletter. Then we did the same with two authors we knew were massive in the library, Darren Shan and Kimberley Chambers. As always, the authors we reached out to (chosen by ourselves and prisoners) were hugely supportive. So this Penned Up wasn’t the same. We didn’t hear the total hush as TV writer Jimmy McGovern said, “Do you want to know the truth about Hillsborough?” We didn’t witness the response to singer/songwriter Scott Lavene’s performance on fatherhood when a guy turned to me, amazement all over his face, and said: “That really got to me. I never thought it would.”
There is no chance of that face-to-face, emotive response this time. Names are removed so we get the work never knowing anything about the person who sent it in. We have to study closely each entry, try to imagine not just what is there on the page but what is behind it.There were individual acts of kindness and empathy, such as the officer who brought up a poem entry from a guy in the Seg (Segregation), giving an opportunity to connect which we might not have had even if we’d been in the prison. And it was gratifying to have so many responses to the challenges from TV reviews to conceptual art, to nature writing.
Small Axe: Alex Wheatle
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