Big Issue Vendor

John Bird: Investing in prisoners could help them rewrite their story

The library offers educational, physical and social improvement to help you out of the sticky stuff

As a part of the fourth year of the Penned Up literary festival, I went and did a talk. Much of my life is given over to raising people’s aspirations, spirit, sense of wellbeing and direction. It’s as though I only truly got it wrong in the first part of my life, surviving grief, only then to spend the rest of my time offering it up to people willing to listen.

My product, which I bring to the marketplace, is showing survival and flourishing when in, or after, the sticky stuff. Bookshops are full of guides to survive. I do a cheap, on-the -spot, no-quibble survival guide, improvement guide, aspirational guide; but in real life.

I have yet to tire of it because I can see how good it is to get people to think of their current problems and listen to someone like me who can probably multiply the occasions when I cocked up and yet survived.

I have definitely spoken at many interesting literary festivals. But imagine one that takes place in a prison, where getting in involved security, and scrutiny, that involved locked doors and corridors, with the audience banged up.

Penned Up is coordinated by David Kendall, and run at a number of prisons, but the festival I went to was at HM Prison Erlestoke, the only prison in Wiltshire, and it was a formidable idea that I hope gains more traction.

But to have a festival you need many things to fall into place. You also need the governor of the prison to get behind it. If the governor doesn’t get behind it, the gates remain locked, the ideas are left outside the fences and walls, and the enjoyments and thoughtfulness that flows through the arts doesn’t happen.

I spoke for an hour and was questioned afterward by the inmates, with some interesting questionings coming up. But the big idea, if there is one, is how do you turn from wrongdoing to hopefully doing good. How do you jump the fence, so to speak (a good analogy for a prison). How do you scale the walls of poverty and need that is nearly always the foundation stone of crime, and get into something where you can make something of your human potential?

One of the centrepieces of the prison is the prison library, run passionately and efficiently by Wiltshire Council. It offers educational, physical and social improvement to help you out of the sticky stuff. It’s a place where education, reading and studying – and becoming useful to yourself – helps you on that road out.

Tim Knight, the prison governor, is committed to the festival and sees that if you want your inmates to prosper in later life they need education and the culture of learning to get that chance.

Penned Up is a godsend and an inspiration

The prison service has been cut, losing over 7,000 officers since 2010 – although the current government has brought in more recruits. Without officers, and experienced officers, you don’t get the chance to have literary festivals. You reduce the chance of changing anyone’s life because rehabilitation is put on the back burner.

As the governor says, having the officers really does increase the chance of looking at improving life chances among inmates, and by that changing the route they may take once released.

Rehabilitation leading to a sensible release, with support and decent work to go to, will increase the chances that the investment society makes in our prisons – around £4.3bn in 2017/18 – is paid off.

That may be one of the things we’re missing in our custodial philosophy. That each person who is picked up and committed to prison is someone we are investing in with the hope that our investment will pay off. We invest in children to get a good future by educating them. We invest in prisons and prisoners but, because of a scarcity of rehabilitation, we don’t get the returns we want.


There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

That’s the half-arsed situation. The following story might demonstrate this:

A woman goes to the doctor who says she has to go to hospital. The hospital staff admit her. A nurse shows her where her bed is, where the bathroom is, asks her what she wants to eat, where the library is etc.

Each day she is fed and watered and visited. This goes on for many days.

Then, one day, she’s told by a nurse that she’s going home tomorrow. And she is completely confused.

“But I was supposed to have an operation.”

The nurse is equally confused.

“An operation? Oh no. We can’t afford to give you an operation.”

And she leaves the next day with the same problems as she went in with.

I often use this silly little story to show how rehabilitation being left out of prisons is like leaving out the treatment in a hospital.

Luck, happenstance, kismet, all these play a good part in preparing people to take advantage of opportunity. But preparation by working on yourself, your education and your skills means that – when luck might happen to fall into your lap – you’re actually ready for it.

I left HM Prison Erlestoke convinced that Penned Up is a godsend and an inspiration and that we need more rehabilitation. Else all we’re doing is giving people a bed and not a cure.