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.