My university course has afforded me quite a few incredible opportunities. I study English Literature with Creative Writing, and my university is fantastic at providing inspiration and opportunity for young writers. We often have guest lectures from graduated authors, workshops about different veins of work in the writing industry and so on. This week I experienced a different kind of opportunity. I attended a creative writing workshop at the prison in Norwich.
On Wednesday, I met one of my professors and two other students outside the prison. The journey to the prison was a little dramatic in itself. It is a criminal offence to bring a mobile phone onto the site without a proper place to store it, so we were warned to leave ours at home. No leaving it switched off in your bag, it has to be completely off-site. I thought this was fine, until I was on the bus to the city centre and wanted to message my friend to say happy birthday, I also wanted to double-check the route – useless. I felt completely naked without it, kinda sad when you think about it. I ended up heading in the wrong direction and had to stop at a cafe to ask for physical directions. The lovely lady behind the counter seemed very surprised that I was headed for the prison, but obviously was too polite to ask. She drew me a very helpful map and I headed off in the right direction.
The HM Norwich prison is in a weird setting, it’s hidden in a little suburb at the top of a hill. You head down a lane, all green and charming, and then slowly the barbed wire and gated walls rise up into view. It’s pretty surreal.
Anyway, we headed into the main entrance and showed our photo ID. Visitors aren’t allowed in unless they’ve been cleared by security earlier in the week. Even if you have been cleared, if the person on the door doesn’t have the list of your names, no way are you getting in. We were separated at the entrance since myself and the two other students were only cleared for a maximum of two visits, whereas my professor and the prison librarian had a set of keys each. After going through a double-locked door (controlled by an unseen person) we were in a weird corridor painted with brightly coloured jungle animals. I figured it was where the children of prisoners were ushered to put their belongings before seeing their parents in a visiting area.
After leaving the surreal jungle room, we headed through another door and out into the ‘open’. Obviously it wasn’t really open, it was a space within gated walls which the prisoners could use to walk between buildings. We headed to the education block to drop our bags and then headed to the segregated unit. We were part of a creative writing workshop with segregated prisoners. If you’re part of the segregated population it generally means you would be vulnerable in the general population. For example, ex-police, ex-judges, prisoners with charges of paedophilia, violent sex crimes, notorious cases etc. I found it interesting to be face-to-face with the weird sense of morality in the prison system. A man who had been caught with child pornography was vulnerable to attack in the main population because other violent men deemed that a new level of ‘evil’. It was genuinely fascinating. There is definitely a strong code, which I don’t think you can ever fully understand until you’re part of that system.
We went through to a small room in the segregated unit which already had about ten men waiting for us. When I say small, I mean tiny. It was so small you couldn’t shift position without touching the person sat next to you. It got very warm in that room! That’s not interesting, necessarily, but it was a new experience being in such a confined space with men convicted of presumably violent or sexual crimes. That being said, my preconceptions and shallow judgements were definitely incorrect. The men I found in that room were largely incredibly perceptive, intelligent, encouraging to each other and interested in learning more about us. I’m not naive enough to think they are good men. But I don’t think they are bad men. Does that make sense? There was such a genuine sense of excitement in response to every writing exercise presented to them, and when offered another two weeks of writing classes they were unanimously thrilled by the prospect. Additionally, some of the men were incredibly talented; they put us to shame! I don’t mean this to sound patronising in any way, I mean I was genuinely embarrassed by my own writing when sat next to a man who wrote with perfect rhythm and could bang out a flawless poem in ten minutes.
That being said, there were some unnerving moments. Firstly, the younger men seemed transfixed with writing about violence: within the space of the first hour we had heard mumbled readings of house fires, the murder of a fictional wife and an odd story involving a knife, mystery box, and a stranger’s semen… Yeah. It was never possible to forget our surroundings, either, since the tiny room was off a larger workshop and had a wall of windows which other prisoners would amble past – I felt a bit like a fish in a tank. The only time I felt noticeably uncomfortable was after our writing workshop was over and we were waiting in the workshop for the doors to open: ‘free flow’, when all the prisoners move between cells, work and other activities. The doors opened and another large group of segregated prisoners filed in. We were the main attraction. It was suddenly very obvious that we were the only three females in a room of over one hundred imprisoned men. I don’t like being outnumbered by men at the best of times, never mind in a segregated unit of a men’s prison.
We were never really in any danger, however, and it wasn’t as weird as I expected. My knowledge of a prison was entirely based of Orange Is The New Black so a men’s prison in Britain was a bit of a shock. I’m really happy I got to work with such interesting men and to see genuine enthusiasm for simple writing exercises. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we chose to write because we loved it; in that little room I was reminded of how it feels to be excited by a word game or a short prompt. I was reminded how exciting it is to sit in a room of other people, all furiously writing, silent apart from the occasional sighs and scribbles.
I’m so thankful for the opportunity not only to have a little sneak peek inside a local prison, but also to meet some male prisoners and dispel some of my preconceptions. Yes, dangerous prisoners can be vulnerable, handsome, funny, intelligent, filthy-minded, obsessed with hash… They can be thirty years your senior, spending the remainder of their life behind bars, and also recall the exact same childhood smells as you. Who knew that hot asphalt beneath knees and wafts of petrol through car windows were such unifying smells?