The Stories They Tell… (more on the DS project at HMP Holme House)

IMG_0070“Digital storytelling has evolved to become an international movement of deeply committed folks working with story in virtually every field of human endeavour” (2013) Joe Lambert is director of the Center for Digital Story Telling (est. San Francisco 1993), and author of  Digital Storytelling CookbookDigital Storytelling – Capturing Lives, Creating Community and Seven Ages of Story. I am so pleased and proud to have been taught the art by Joe Lambert himself. Joe and the storytelling community know Stretch to be the leaders in the field with prisoners.  Recently when Stretch wrote a report on a large project Stretch Digital  , Joe honoured us with a forward – “Carlotta and her compatriots have taken our methods and found a way to maintain a project in the context of the UK’s version of the prison industrial complex.  We know from our few experiences that doing this work requires a kind of commitment, a kind of doggedness, that borders on maniacal.   You have to be willing to convince authorities, plan approaches, cope with security and privacy concerns, and finally hang out with men and women that are not exactly feeling the best about what is happening to themselves in their lives.    It is a tough job, and only those deeply committed to listening to those stories, who believe in the power of restoring hope and dignity through story,  are likely to come back after a few of these experiences.  Stretch has made a point of coming back again and again.  They’ve changed lives….Each one of Stretch’s stories provide a validation to the essential truth that every life, every story, matters.  And if you know that, the chances of you finding your way back to a full and productive life are that much greater. “IMG_0098

Coming at this group in the prison I felt very conscious, in the best possible way, of the skills, knowledge and experience I was bringing to the group – also the skills and experience of Simon who had taken what Stretch had taught him and was a true story-catcher in his own right, working at The Mustard Tree and for Manchester International Festival’s Street Poem. We felt like the dream team, I think we just might be.

The lads all had a pretty strong idea of what they wanted to say straight away. They seemed inspired by the stories we showed them from other prisoners, we played Kurtis as one example and two of the group were amazed at the similarities with their own story, brought up in care, etc.  This identification is all part of the process. The feeling that they are not alone in their story gives them confidence to speak up. They all spent their lunch times working on their stories and arrived back with family photos, books, songs and ideas.  We split them into small groups and encouraged them to tell each other their stories – there was no resistance and they respected each other and listened – it was really impressive. Simon and I went round and listened and made suggestions about adding detail, moving the start, lengthening, shortening or adding a bit of ‘drama’ with remembered dialogue and detail – I am always a fan of encouraging the light and the dark in the story to give it depth.

All the guys came up with redemption narratives of sorts, as is normal – even if they arrived there in different ways. Some of the group had already worked with recovery services and were used to telling their story. I follow the work of eminent criminologist Shadd Maruna ( and actually befriended him after he re-tweeted a tweet at conference).  His seminal work Making Good gives an account of narrative criminology stating “the self-narrative is increasingly understood as a critical part of an individual’s personality and inner self’ (Maruna 39:2013) and he discusses the connection to recovery process and the creation and promotion of “replacement discourse” such as is used with great effect in rehabilitation subcultures such as Alcoholics Anonymous. When reformed ex-offenders share their stories with others, they are leading the effort to transform public discourse about crime and criminality.

The lads were really stepping up to the role – inspired by the stories they had seen and hopefully by Simon and I,  they wrote and rewrote their biographies. Some are direct messages to loved ones, some are musing about their decision making and what lead them to prison, all are hopeful or at least ending on a hopeful note.

IMG_0077We didn’t get to use a lot of the other materials I had brought, if anything, although the project was intense and the momentum was good – we didn’t have quite enough time. One afternoon was wasted as there was the inevitable process problem and 4 of the lads were assigned to another project in the prison. They sat there twiddling their thumbs by all accounts, desperate to come back,  but the computer said no. I would have liked to have involved them in some making and crafting. I had blank storyboards and boxes to be decorated, I am a great believer in the power of cutting and sticking. In my experience, something happens to people when their hands are busy making, they relax, they talk and open up – the female prisoners get into it more than the men generally. It seemed these men were genuinely enthralled by the iPads, they did have time to play around a little with them. The older Jamaican lifer was determined not to do anything fancy, “no trickery,” he based his story pretty much around one book on Jamaica. Wigs the rapper on the other hand was recording his own sound effects and different beat and bars on different tracks like a mini recording studio! People worked at their own pace.

IMG_0080The process in this context is a process of co-creation and I like to think we give the storytellers the skills and confidence to make the story their own. I try and be quite strict in keeping their voice – but inevitably the constraints of time, internet access and ability mean that we, (well, Simon) spent a lot of time off site fiddling with their stories on the iPads. We researched pictures they wanted, songs, and made timed slots in the time line so they could come along and do a final edit. We almost lost Jack, he threw his toys out of the pram, ‘it was too hard’, he had made it difficult for himself, ‘I never finish anything’ he said. I was determined to get him to the end. One benefit of delivering intensively over the week is that you DO get to the end, we had the showing and celebration booked – sometimes if you deliver over 6 weeks people drift in and out. Prison life can be chaotic and life gets in the way, people start and get distracted. Many of them worried that their films would ‘be shit’ and didn’t want to show them – it was our job to make sure that wouldn’t happen



Digital Storytelling at HMP Holme House, back in the saddle



It felt really good to be packing up my storytelling kit and setting off on a weeklong adventure at a new prison. It was like the old days when I first started the practice – I haven’t actually delivered a full project with prisoners for a couple of years and I was pleased and excited to be asked. HMP Holme House is a large Cat C facility with 1200 single cells. I came to Holme House years ago when it was Cat B prison, it still very much looks and feels like a Cat B. Recently Holme House has been give a new status as a ‘recovery’ prison and given £9 million to pilot this initiative, seems Stretch  was benefiting from this, bring it on! Stretch was being paid well by Live, Change, Grow – whom I had made a speculative presentation to over six months ago. After a difficult year fighting the corner of storytelling and scraping around for projects, I was thrilled that the team saw the benefit of the process. It is especially useful in recovery services who engage in redemption narratives and life stories as part of the 12 Step programmes.



I chose to deliver the project with my colleague Simon from Stretch Digital, as he is a whizz on the iPads and I feel rusty with the tech, this would be chance to re-learn some skills. We were scheduled to deliver over 4 intensive days and opted to stay in a B&B near the prison, no distractions, totally in the zone. The sun was splitting the sky as we drove to the prison – as is normal we were both a little bit nervous about the prospective group, would they like it? would they ‘get it’? Would the prison be cooperative, would we even get IN?

The first morning we arrived at 8am and were left waiting outside for around 40 minutes,  the gate staff were pretty jolly, the correct paper work for the tech just hadn’t made it down from security to the gate. I must be completely mad setting up a project that takes iPads into prisons. I stand staring at the list of disallowed items at the entrance to every prison, I had submitted the lists, serial numbers, done everything properly – its never, ever that simple. Simon and I watched a few lads being released, enjoyed their joy, smiled and said hello and good luck.

Finally, we are ushered through security – bags emptied – iPads, headphones, Mac books, etc. counted, patted down and ushered through. It’s a vast and confusing prison, lots of open corridors criss-crossing into who-knows-where and some nice green spaces thats the prisoners cannot use. We are working in the Chapel, which is a good place to work – comfy, spacious and two large screens we plug our laptops into. The guys were there waiting for us when we arrived as we were so late, so not the slick prepared opening session I hoped for – but we took it in our stride. Sammy, my contact, was bending over backwards to  accommodate us.


This is the first time I have delivered a project since I started my PhD Research looking at Digital Storytelling with prisoners – everything suddenly has a multilayered meaning and a new status, I feel hyper-aware of the process. I mention how re-imagining  your life is beneficial, narrative theories from criminology, psychology, ethnography  and even neuroscience all bounce around my laden mind. I am action-researcher, I am re-telling my own story.

I come from the traditional school of storytelling and positioned myself as the ‘touchy feely’ one and Simon as the tech wizard, but that is not strictly true as Simon brings just as many ‘feels’ to the table as I do! I am keen on ice-breakers and games to get people talking,  we open with lists of things we love and hate, just 5 of each, when read out to the group they are good starting point for discussion and few laughs. Its a good sized group, 7 men – diverse mix. I play my opening film that talks about my drive and my own prison history – their interest is up – over the day we play about 5 films of different types, showing what the genre is – including Simons film. Its always good practice to give a little of yourself to the group, open up and share, it builds trust and they open up.



We do a few writing exercises over the morning, tell me about about a big decision you made, describe a happy time and a sad time – the boys don’t hold back – there’s a respectful atmosphere in the room. Ben (names changed) is a 50 year old Jamaican lifer – vegan – gentle, never seen an iPad in his LIFE. Jack, young local lad, jumpy as a box of frogs, shy but creative, totally on the spectrum. Phillip – heavily medicated, slightly strange but creative and a poet and very keen. Nazir, Bangladeshi from Bradford, comedian but eager. Kieron, pumped up black guy from Manchester had to do a geographical to get away, gentle giant. ‘Wigs’ wise guy, rapper, full of energy but guarded – bit of a clown. Bill, white collar fraudster, in his 50’s, found Buddhism and peace in prison. They listen to each other and help each other, they listen to us and follow instructions – they work hard.


Simon takes them through some simple iPad techniques and we talk about how much the world has become digitised on the out, you cant event park your car without knowing how to use ‘apps’ – they have fun taking selfies, mixed knowledge about the tech. As we are working to the clock and need to get the stories done for a presentation on Thursday afternoon we are keen to get the scripts started but the end of the day. We ‘check-in’ at the beginning and end of each session, a long morning session, a long 2 hour lunch (why do prisons DO that?) and a shorter PM session. The group works well, in the afternoon we split up into smaller groups or twos and they free write and we encourage them to tell each other their stories, time them, get used to saying them out loud. Progress is quick, we are so impressed with the group – day one complete we feel happy and proud.