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.

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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

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