One of the organisers of Hammer and Tongue, Steve Larkin, has been involved in teaching performance poetry to some students from Oxford-Brookes University. Part of the course has included working with some of the inmates at HM Prison Grendon. This is described as a therapeutic prison, whereby prisoners choose to take an active role in their rehabilitation. This can be done through art, craft etc.
Last night saw the culmination of the work. For the students it was an assessed piece. For the inmates it was an opportunity to show off to their pals. For the rest of us it was a chance to see a bunch of different poets in, what has to be said, a very different environment to your average slam.
Upon arriving at the prison we were sent through in groups of ten. For those of us at the back of the group, we had plenty of time to examine the vibe. We had the mandatory hurricane fencing with rows of barbed wire, the large wooden gate that wouldn't have survived much of an assault from Grond the battering ram (although if the Witch King and thirty thousand orcs were on the prison threshold I suspect there would be other issues at stake), and a token gesture at flowers, a large circular pipe planted vertically with some flowers. We also had ample time to become familar with all the regulations that were dispalyed on the signs plastered over the aforementioned gates. Aside from the stringent warnings about bringing in drugs there were also notices about how escaping was verboten, sorry forbidden (not quite the POW ethos of 'it is your duty to escape'), a mission statement, and the obligatory notice about how discrimination would not be tolerated. We were told that failure to meet these regulations would result in us not being given access to the establishment. I suspect that that same punishment did not apply to the prisoners.
Finally we made it through the gates whereupon we were searched and had a drug siffer dog examine us. I guess this is the only instance of a dog sniffing ones crotch being socially acceptable. It's funny how when you know that you've done nothing wrong you can still feel guilty and afraid when people in authority are examining you.
We then had to wait in a small shed while were cleared to go in. One of the posters on the wall had a picture of a little hand holding a big hand with the caption "mummy, who will look after me when you got to prison for bringing in drugs?"...
The slam itself took place in a hall in the middle of the prison, near the exercise yard. By the time we arrived all the inmate were waiting for us. Steve was introduced by one of the senior wardens and we were off. The students and performing prisoners all had the names put into a hat (actually, it was Steve's pocket) and were drawn out one by one to determine the running order. Approximately thirteen poets from the inside and the outside read. A lot of the poets read from very similar themes (I fear, and Imagine you're an object) which reflected the course material, but not all. What impressed me most was the diversity in the subject matter. There was a poem about turning to jelly when faced with a beautiful woman, there was a poem about being a remote control (this is a remote area, control is impossible), there was a poem about potty training the prisoners young son and there was a poem that was devoted to water. Now, I do water for a living. Water is one of those things I know about, but this guy impressed me. It would never have occurred to me to make a link between snow and the water of the womb, and the breaking of that water bringing life. Without being disrespectful to the students, I felt that the cons had the stronger poems. The one exception was the woman who read a poem that described a tramp. It was if she was in the head of the man.
The most moving part was the camaraderie between the cons. All the prisoners backed their pals, and their were more perfect tens than your average slam...
If there was one overriding observation it was that even though I was in a prison with some hard nuts, I felt completely safe. There was no segregation between inmates, students and visitors. There were only a couple of bored warders at the back of the room. It never even occurred to me to see the criminal behind the person. I'm sure that these people have inflicted a powerful hurt on the community, but it was useful to be reminded that rehabilitation works. Which is not to overlook their victims. It was a shame when the prisoners were all trucked off to their cells at 7.45pm. But prison time is prison time and they don't put the systems on hold for a bunch of hippy poets...
So respect to both Steve for doing the course, and respect to the inmates for being so damn receptive to him. And respect to the prison authorities for letting the rest us of stay on till all the students had finished, after all, seeing as the inmates were gone there was no reason for us to be there.
Postscript: The Prison has a registered charity associated with it called Friends of Grendon. They support arts and crafts initiatives at Grendon, encourage the local community to get involved with the prison and spend time actively encouraging inmates in their rehabilitation. Now it may just be me, but it seems to me that members of the community getting involved with a prison is very far-sighted, and ultimately beneficial to both the prisoners and the outside world. After all, surely an offender who has felt respected is more likely to be a 'valuable member of society' (whatever the hell that is) than one who has been ostracized?