Bridget Edwards introduces us to two men, one in his late teens and one considerably older. Both have served time in jail and both discovered the arts during their time there. They tell their own stories.

Charlie as a judge in his play at the Edinburgh

Charlie’s Story

In September 1995 I was sent to prison for 16 months. While in prison I kept a scrapbook to record poems, short stories, artwork, letters and cards. This became an arts project for me to record my time in prison. We did a play about HIV awareness and that created a greater sense of trust and respect amongst the prisoners taking part, and my friends and family loved the paintings I did for them.

The prison officers were varied in their response though. Some were enthusiastic about the arts and those officers were able to see me as a person. Others were negative and couldn’t see or understand the value of the arts. Those officers saw me as just another number to be counted.

I would say the key benefit I received from taking part was a chance to escape the reality of prison’s boredom, routine and repetition, providing me with a space to experience a creative adventure with the use of my imagination. The arts allowed me to forget where I was for an hour and laugh and play. In my eight months in prison I experienced bullying, violence and abuse. The arts have allowed me to work through that abuse. As a result it has restored my humanity and dignity, making me a more loving, peaceful and compassionate person.

On my release I turned the scrapbook into a one-man play which I performed at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and it was reviewed by Sally Stott of The Scotsman: “It is difficult to come away from this piece thinking that prison in its current manifestation is a good idea. That is Charlie’s aim – to make you question the system, and it is something he definitely achieves.”

Ozzie’s Story

I was recently released from an 18-month sentence, the bulk of which I spent in Rochester prison. My time in Rochester was spent inactively, or unconstructively rather, until around November 2007 when I discovered writing. I actually got into writing accidentally. One day in the prison library, I boasted I could probably write a better poem than the guys from LBB (the prison magazine). The writer-in-residence took up my offer and asked me to write a poem. I did and she liked it. I started writing for the prison magazine soon after and have been writing ever since. [[The arts have restored my humanity and dignity, making me a more loving, peaceful and compassionate person.]]

Before I started writing, I had no idea what I wanted to do upon release. I had no focus, no sense of purpose and my days consisted of the same insipid routine as I waited impatiently for my release. Once I started writing however, I felt like I discovered a piece of myself that was hitherto unexplored. My whole attitude towards life changed because I felt I’d found something I not only enjoyed but was actually good at. I began to have a positive outlook on life as I envisioned a legitimate future in writing.

I noticed the prison officers’ attitude also changed towards me. They became much more friendly with me. I remember on one occasion, a prison officer took me into the shower, read out a poem to me and asked for my opinion. Firstly when I started writing, I got some criticism from other prisoners – they thought writing was for geeks. But as time went on, they saw how proud I was of my writing and they started to respect me for it. Soon afterwards, more prisoners started to participate in writing for the magazine and a lot of them would bring me books they had read or ask me to recommend an interesting book.

I noticed on numerous occasions how people’s attitude changed after taking part in the arts. One such instance was when Learning 2 Learn, an arts- based project, was introduced into Rochester. The participants had to make a mask and describe what it represents. Never in all my time in jail did I see prisoners’ faces glow with pride as when they discussed their achievements. Upon release, I have continued to write poems, short stories and I'm also writing my first play. I’m also planning on taking a creative writing course to further my skills and intend to join a writers group.

Bridget Edwards is Chief Executive of the Anne Peaker Centre for Arts in Criminal Justice.
t: 01227 471006; e: ceo@apcentre.org.uk;
w: http://www.apcentre.org.uk

Ozzie and Charlie are just two of the hundreds of people who have benefited by the work of artists in the criminal justice sector. The work of the Anne Peaker Centre and the Government's support of its Arts Alliance is both needed and timely. The first Arts Alliance conference will be held in London on 5 November.

Institutionalised
By Osaheni Eubuomwan - HMP Rochester

Dreary, misery my life has become
This oppressive cage
Is too much to overcome;
My life has become a deja vu
Broken only by my rendezvous;
The visits they serve mostly to tease
My yearning for freedom
They do not appease
I’m trapped in a cage
Please acknowledge my rage
This chapter is foreign
It’s not part of my page;
They tell me behaviour shows maturity
I tell them compliance shows docility
I refuse to conform
So they call me insubordinate
Then put me on basic
I refuse to co-operate;
I’m living in hell
What more can I say?
A minute is an hour
And a month is a day
No, the reverse in fact
A day is a month;
I rely on my will
But it’s barely enough
I’m going insane
I’m losing my mind
So I go to the gym
To help me unwind;
My release is at hand
But yet I’m afraid
So restless I stay
Till my departure’s fulfilled…

To read Ozzie’s poem in full, visit http://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/viewpage.cfm?id=7