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.




Milanese Tales (part 1)



To very briefly recap on the last year since my last blog – I have been very busy with Stretch. The Big Lottery funded project Stretch Digital has taken all my energy to establish a presence in the UK prisons and to validate my ideas around easy access to technology and using technology for well-being and creativity in prisons and with returning citizens in the community.

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I have used a lot of my knowledge acquired from my trips to Australia and the Norway, not only technical systems and practical uses of different technology but more the differing styles of ‘rehabilitation regimes’ and the ethics of various world-wide prisons.

So, recently my work has taken me to Milan, the place of my birth – on another prison related adventure. Over the last year I have found myself working with Central Saint Martins ‘Design Against Crime Research Centre’– and I couldn’t be more delighted. I think I have found the spiritual and logical home for my quite obscure research interests. It all started when I attended a lecture at St Martins about the ‘Maverick Economy’ – I had had in mind always working with DAC and looks like my dreams may just come true! Watch this space for future research plans with CSM.

First stop in Milan was the ‘Cooperative Sociale Alice‘ which is a fashion boutique and workshop. The team and I are very interested in prison industry and different models of prison ‘work’ for rehabilitation and re-intergration into the community. Although not directly connected to Digital Storytelling – as a social entrepreneur myself,  I am always interested in ways prisoners create and design and work  themselves out of criminal behaviour.

Our host Caterina,  from Socially Made in Italy , told us about the scheme where prisoners learn work skills in the prison and then come out to work in the workshops and create very high quality items. The scheme is actually working with Ilaria Fendi on a series of sustainable bags designs under the name Carmina Campus – a really inspirational model.

It was a hot and sweaty Milanese day and the ‘Cooperative Sociale Alice’ did not have air conditioning. It was a tiny, inconspicuous back street store with a little studio and lab in the back. The first thing that struck was the quality of the clothes. These were Milan-fashion standard, beautiful lines, simple and stylish – made out of beautiful materials – many of which were actually woven in the prison. There was nothing community-arts about these products, proper industry standard. I came away with two designer dresses that I am really pleased with.

Caterina told us about the scheme that sees prisoners trained within the prison and working at a high standard form within to then come out to the labs outside. This is the same scheme that Ilaria Fendi supports, and Fendi staff actually work closely with the prison to ensure that anything made is ofthe right standard. They have a few contracts, such as Graduation Gowns, and have made for other designers, and a few different ranges from high-end designer to their work-wear label.


Vivienne’s story


Much of the talk was a bit over my head – about the manufacturing models – I was hooking in to the narratives that ran along side the production and the products. I really like that fact that Caterina had said, “to manufacture – is to tell a story” and that there were many stories that ran along side the products. Every item might have ten different stories. Caterina was working on a prototype working model, a vertical system,  where it is not just selling because of the emotional story, every one is getting paid the right amount and they only make enough to be sold and keep the business going as a sustainable entity.


Over a beautiful Italian lunch we heard about how the prisoners in Italy actually earn wages exactly in line with the outside – they join the same unions and are paid as workers – then they actually contribute to their keep in the prison and they are able to maintain a position with their family as ‘contributor’ and ‘bread winner’ by sending money home – I thought this was particularly striking –  prisoners in England are infantilised with a ‘pocket money’ system,  how many prisoners are written off by their loved ones as ‘good for nothing’ ? Just imagine if their narrative could change to provider and worker, from within the prison? 

I have more to write, my next post is about the actual prison visits – and then I want to talk about the prison industries and ideas for similar ‘enterprise hubs’ in England.




Prisons, technology and well-being (pt1)


The aims of my research for the WCMT were originally set out as follows:

To explore how using technology in prisons can improve mental health of prisoners. How the use of the internet, digital recording equipment and connectivity can positively impact on well being and recovery, and so reduce re-offending. To capture the stories of lives being changed by access to technology. To examine different models of working with the internet and technology in prisons and think about building an informed model for the prisons I have access to. Mental Health in prisons is increasingly important and overlooked and treating it using technology is a new area that should be considered. To look at ways to implement ideas, solutions and best practice into Stretch Digital and the work in prisons in the UK.

It has been hard to have any joined up thinking about these topics because all the prisons have been so different, from Melbourne, London to Norway – each prison is a little micro society depending on the director, staff and the make up of prisoners. I have seen interesting and advanced use of technology, but not really in the way I was expecting. The ‘well-being’ has come about for lots of reasons, a flexible attitude to technology is a by-product of a flexible attitude generally. I can talk about things that I have seen that I have thought, thats a good idea! It is difficult extracting the actual technology-factor in the well-being, as ‘well-being’ is quite an intangible concept (I spent a long time trying to explain it Norwegians, we settled on ‘mental health’ as a term we all understood).

In Bergen Prison there was not the ‘fear’ about communication and the internet that you find in all the UK prisons. Prisoners are not allowed internet access, but there is an intranet where they can research things – fill in on line forms, read the papers and practice navigating around. All the education and work departments had office with full internet, the white boards in the classrooms could access full internet. Head officers and senior staff had mobile phones because they might be needed. It just seemed a more practical and laid back response to the ‘problems’ of the internet and technology. In Trondheim male and female prisoners sat side by side in the computer room researching their projects. In the woodwork and metal work workshops there were classrooms where the students were using Sketch Up and business standard software to work on contracts for  cabins and CAD drawings. Everything had a link to the outside.

They were very open to the idea of the digital story sessions, that had not actually done anything like it, they were literally amazed at how open the women were and how much they wanted to share. The teachers came and sat in on one session and the the Director of the prison too, various officers popping in and out to have a look. I could not not deliver a full DS workshop as there just was not time. I spent a lot of time playing games and getting the participants to talk, we recorded in session 2 and I did most of the editing.

In Trondheim they has an amazing ‘Media and Communications’ room which had state-of the-art macs and software, a huge printer, once again everything up to the same standard as print workshop on the outside – the prisoners in their were working with a local museum to digits and archive their collection of old photographs – and learning a lot in the process (another good idea and a way to connect a prison to a museum perhaps)

In Bruvoll prison the education department had a camera, Adobe photoshop and Movie Maker on their PC’s in the education room. It was recognised that filmmaking, recording, photo manipulation, podcasts and digital stories were all things you could do successfully OFF LINE so were good ways to practise using the most up to date technology. The well-being comes from not feeling like you are missing out on all the advances in technology on the outside world.

I know of a prison in the UK that has ordered a mac suite over a year ago, 8 big Mac’s stuck in a cupboard on a corridor in the education department as the staff need ‘proper training’ – the Macs came after the drive of particularly committed teacher, art teacher, who wanted them for – amongst other things – a design enterprise coming from the art room. There is no top-down support for this kind of enterprise in the UK- but in Norway they positively encourage entrepreneurship, it is integral to a lot of things they do in the prison. They encourage independence, skills that enable the prisoner to really fend for themselves in the real world. In the prison shop and in the kiosk selling to prisoners, prisoners do all the ordering and the stocktaking. In the arts and crafts room in Trondheim  (and I believe this is true in every prison) they have a screen printing machine – from August to August each year they encourage a group of prisoners to set up a company painting T-shirts. They have to register properly with the equivalent of companies house, make, market and sell their goods, book keep and submit accounts and at the end of the year dissolve the company formally. Its an ‘Entrepreneurship Module’ and they really learn how to do it on the outside – its real – the company was making T-shirts for an outside sports team, a real order. I would have thought that is quite interesting and satisfying – as an entrepreneur ex-prisoner myself I know how great it is running your own business.


This week in Norway saw the start on ‘Innovation Week’ – a two week intensive programme in the prisons were groups are invited to develop ideas for new products. They have specialist lecturers in and lead sessions and the brainstorm and invent something, they make a computer presentation (could include film) of their invention, prototype, what ever – and it goes into a competition within the prison and then nationally – the over all winner can get made. I like this idea a lot too – tapping into the creativity of the prisoners like the Design Against Crime I mentioned already at UAL . Detractors and cynics say that it could be seen as ‘using and exploiting’ the ideas of the prisoners – but these are the kind of ‘high school’ or ‘student’ opportunities that are run all the time in higher education that most people in prison have simply missed out on. Being part of a team, designing something, making a presentation, perhaps finding you have skill for some part of the process, all things you do not necessary know about unless you have tried.

I would really like to go into prisons and run an ‘Innovation Week’ where groups of prisoners and prison staff design their own prisons, come up with ideas – Im going to suggest it to the Ministry of Justice! (idea’s for Michael Gove #35672)

All these schemes and these practical uses of day-to-day technology are only really made possible in Norway because of the size of the prisons. It probably would not work in a prison that caters for the numbers in the UK. The thought of these ‘super prisons’ that have been mentioned is totally abhorrent – a ‘Super Prison’ would breed the ‘otherness’ that is so destructive and inhibits rehabilitation – I will strongly campaign for smaller prisons, around 500 people, in their own rooms, where meaningful work can take place.

I am still proud of my programme taking iPads into prisons – it seems that it is actually quite forward thinking, so I am still proud of that. In all honesty we are actually only  inside two prisons and negotiating with many more. An iPad is  a ‘secure’ piece of technology where no wifi enabled, no USB, and you can do so much, photos, manipulation, drawing, cartoons, films, sound recording, animation – all in a portable one stop device – the feeling of completing a little project, when you rarely finish anything is reading important. Take Sandy who completed this film last month in Peterborough, he said he had never attended or completed any courses in the prison before, now he is helping the new groups settle in, Ive literally been around the world and not seen anyone doing exactly what I am doing!


Stories from the big city…

I am now in Oslo, the capital of Norway – and it is very different from the Norway of last week! Gone are the wooden houses, the expensive modern buildings and the personal boats – Oslo is a capital city in a European style much more familiar to me – Italianate squares and fountains, homeless people, Somalis, head-scarves, hipsters, man-buns, chuggers, iconic galleries, grubby delis and all the trappings of modern urban life. (I am not yet used to the water everywhere and the sailing culture, I like this bus stop next to the boat stop). Statistics say that by 2040 half of Oslo’s population will be immigrants. Norway’s state system is very attractive to immigrants with the biggest groups coming from Poland, Sweden, Somalia, Lithuania and Pakistan.

This is also reflected in the prisons and the prison population. One third of prisoners across Norway are foreign nationals and higher in the Oslo prisons. The prisons in Oslo are slightly more similar to prisons in the UK, older buildings housing a lot of inmates. One prisoner I interviewed told me about the atmosphere in Oslo prison, “You know where you are in Oslo Prison, you are not friends with the guards, there is much more gangs within the prison, it’s not a bad thing, I like the stricter regime ” 

It is very interesting – I am going to talk about change again, for the last time, as I really MUST talk about technology, well-being and storytelling, as that’s what I am here to research! I am learning that the prisoners themselves, the staff, everyone is quite resistant to change. Although they moan about the prisons, they like to ‘know where they are‘ with the staff and the regime. Whether this is consensus fallacy or something deeper – I think the culture of change is really tricky. I have had debates with former prisoners in the UK who romanticise a little the old victorian prisons. In my view they are not fit for purpose any more and should be pulled down, or turned into public art spaces, but this can be met with, “Nooooo, it wouldn’t be a proper prison then?” like you have to be rattling your chains and slopping out for it to be ‘proper’ – and thats the prisoners themselves? They don’t actually want a liberal regime where they can wonder freely around their flat, cook for themselves, chat with guards and act normal – they are somehow buying into the prison world of contraband, us-vs-them,protection rackets and complaining about the system. That’s the status quo and that’s how they like it. Look at how long term prisoners cannot cope with lower security conditions – they are so used to the prison life. At least in Norway on the whole they try and make life inside match life outside from the start – this is almost impossible in the UK now, to go back and change that culture. I was chatting to the prison guard/ therapist in Trondheim and she was saying, “In Norway, the loss of the freedom is enough, there is no more punishment, everything else is preparing for society and living on the outside” It seems in the UK we are gluttons for punishment ! I would go as far to say the prisoners almost like and expect it.

I have been in three different prisons in the last four days, all very different. Bergen a ‘large’ and modern prison.  Trondheim – a medium sized  (160) higher security prison, spoken to the arts and craft teachers, the people who run the workshops and the officers and staff. There is so much to say I need to process it all some more – Bruvoll is near Oslo and  a small unit of only 70 inmates – a low security ‘last stop’ facility – they have a very high (60%) immigrant and foreign national population.

My day at Brovoll was very interesting as lots of people attended the day and came to see me and discuss our work. There were two visiting professors from Hedmark university who were really fascinating, especially Inger Haug, a professor of political science, a lively and questioning 68 year old woman who’s English was impeccable. The staff were telling me that the culture in that prison had changed over the last few years, the government was spending a lot of money on Electronic ‘Tagging’ devices – so people were not staying at the facility very long, not long enough to help them. The prison is housed in a old police training academy – so not purpose built – they gate is often open, it is low security but funnily enough one of the only prisons in Norway where you share a cell and eat in a canteen. It seemed women ran the place, from the carpentry workshop, to the guards, in the kitchen – at least 60% of staff were women. We watched two stories of two inmates that were really quite brilliant, I was really impressed. One Ethiopian, one Somali – they both had spent time living in England. One had been over with his football team and trained with Manchester City (My team!) his story was full of pictures of those happy days – the other had lived in Woolwich Arsenal at the time of the riots, he had been a 16 year old Somali and joined a gang, WB (Woolwich Boys)a really interesting insight – the teachers really had a good handle on what a digital story was and is, the boys were proud and happy to chat to me about the process. They wanted to make another. I was fascinated with the boys wondering how their story had taken them through London or Manchester and now to prison in Norway. They could have easily been in a London prison. I was thinking, ‘how strange, that I had to come to Norway to hear the voice from ‘the other side’ of the riots’ – an unheard voice of a Somali gang member, vulnerable and scared at times, joining the gang only because he didn’t know what else to do. I had only been fed everything I knew of the riots from the media. It reaffirmed that uncovering these voices and stories is very important.


Change-making in Norway


Let me tell you a story. I have history with Norway, that is why I was able to arrange these visits. Norway was instrumental in my ‘digital storytelling journey’. Four and half years ago a Norwegian lady called Hildegunn saw me present something on prisons and museums at a conference and we got talking. She invited me out to Lillehammer in Norway to give a presentation to her colleagues from the KULTURRÅDET which is the Arts Council of Norway. I was to try to encourage museum and gallery collaborations with prisons. While I was in Lillehammer, in the beautiful snowy Norwegian Woods, the Digital Storytelling ‘guru,’ Joe Lambert, from the Californian based Centre for Digital Story Telling  was delivering a workshop that I was encouraged to attend. It was amazing – it literally changed my life – my work life anyway. I immediately thought ‘what a powerful way to bring together arts, culture, confidence, learning and technology’ – I wanted to bring this method back to my practice in England straight away. I knew it would be a powerful medium with the prisoners. While I went home and began fundraising for digital stories in the UK I kept in touch with the Norwegians at the Arts Council, they were excited too. They paid for me to come out to Norway again and deliver a digital story project with a small prison and a local museum, then using the resulting films, I was invited to Oslo to make a make a presentation to the Arts Council and the Norwegian Correctional Service (KDI). The aim of the day was to encourage museums and prisons to work together using digital stories.

Now I have come back and I have met a number of people working in museums and prisons who were directly advised to do so after that visit. I am astonished – and flattered. In Bergen I met with two lovely ladies from the Kode museum  group who were equally excited to be meeting me, the one who started it all!  Fancy that. I know Norway is small – a population less than London, at only 5 million – and roomy – and rich on the whole. But how refreshing to see an idea actually rolled out successfully across prisons and museums nationwide? Obviously some more than others and it is still very much down to the particular staff and personalities what takes off, but a few people can have an idea that they actually see put into action – in their life time. It’s a thankless task in the UK trying to effect change, trying to roll out good ideas and good practice.  I have been banging on about connecting museums and culture to prisons for years – it’s been like p***ing in the wind. But one presentation in Oslo, and the Prison Service and the Arts Council start a programme of work! Just look at the journey the NAACJ (National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice) for has been on over the last ten years – for years (formerly) The Anne Peaker Centre was a largely ignored body, out in the wilderness. It has taken 10 years of campaigning and collecting evidence for any government body to listen and take note. Finally they get some recognition in the recent white paper on Culture for the collecting of evidence :

“here are also many good examples of how cultural interventions can benefit prisoners, ex-offenders and people at risk of becoming involved in crime. Culture can help to improve self-esteem, social skills and wellbeing: all of which helps to reduce the risk of offending and re-offending and make our communities safer. We will work with Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other partners to ensure that offenders and those at risk continue to benefit from cultural opportunities”

That is just recognition, it will be another 10 years before anything is done. But in Norway, a good idea can be adopted and used and become common place within a few years – I know, I know, smaller and richer country – totally different – but I still maintain we can learn something about this flexibility and openness to change. Who would ever put a group of top executives at the Arts Council together with a group of Prison Directors to see what they could do? I would really like to see that!


A few comments on my recent blogs have alluded to a UK that will never change, that is totally closed to change – ‘that will never work here’ and that ‘its impossible’ – makes me feel naive and wildly optimistic – is it wrong to believe in change? I always say, well even if we can take one little thing, one piece of good practice – its worth it. There is no matching up of the cultures, I know they are too far apart. I have to spend a long time even explaining what a charity even is in Scandinavia, they have little concept of that culture. If the prison wants to do some extra artworks or buy a screen printing machine they ask their Director, who asks the government. The shops that I mention in the last blog, the online industries, everything is run by the government and the prison service. They have no need for visiting charities picking up the pieces and filling in the gaps in provision. Yes it would be totally different if an outside agency had to come in and organise the shop like they do with something like Fine Cell Work, the different charities would be in-fighting and self-serving, it could not work like that.  Here, they spend a lot of money on their prisons and prison service, they believe  it’s worth it. Workshops have state of the art machines, today I saw a million krone (£90,000) metal work machine, the (female) foreman told me, “We  have to compete with the world outside, be on the same level, otherwise what’s the point?”




The Prison Shop – so simple and effective

My three days at Bergen prison are over and tomorrow morning I fly to Oslo and then Trondheim. It was great really, I was bit down on it all at first – just missing home. Truth is there is so much to write about it is hard ordering my thoughts, that is why blogging is useful for me (even if no one reads it) to help me consolidate my learning. I am circling a couple of serious blogs about storytelling and museums. This is a light hearted gush about a brilliant idea, I do not know why this is not happening in prisons in the UK. I am going to bring it back and devise a way to do it, it ticks so many boxes.

Every prison in Norway (and other some other Scandinavian countries) have a prison store, stocking items made in the prison. the workshops in the prison range from carpentry, candle making, ceramics, metal work, wash bags, candles and cards. All the goods are also available on line. The wooden furniture and children toys and tables and chairs are best sellers. They have large contracts in wooden benches down to tiny items and gifts. I looked round the workshops – it was good to be making items that were then going over the wall. It is somehow more real, more connected to outside and not just tokenism ‘making’ of stuff to adorn the prison with.


Prisons Stretch works in have a couple of in house business’s – or at least aspire to – but nothing joined up – it seems to be  down to the individual drive of committed staff (as usual) whether something takes off. Jailbirds for example sells cards but only at churches and fetes, and to other prisoners – its not really a through-the-gate service. There are a few printing business’s, but nothing ‘craft based’ like we see in these shops. I know some of the prisons I work in have ‘enterprise centres’ – where making goes on.  But there is no organised outlet – the work isn’t quite shop standard, it all feels a bit community artsy and  not outward looking. These entrepreneurs should think about the real market place, peoples homes outside, selling on line, marketing and research into popular products (candles for example)

My very favourite product is a high design product made in conjunction with designers. Two Norwegian designers were involved in the making of a lamp called ‘Bake me a cake’ – I saw them being made in the workshop and they are fine designer products – and they sell for a whopping 2890k which is about £270 – not second rate tat at all. The lamp has a ‘file’ inside and is a playful take on the ‘file in the cake joke’ for prisoners.


DSC_0129I have had ideas about doing some prison fashion projects before and tried to get funding, people are fascinated by prisons and I think if a serious designer could be persuaded to help design some basics that could be made the prisoners it would be a winner. Socially aware T-shirts and bags that would change every season. Simple items. Customising charity clothes, which is a massive business in its self.  It happens in Berlin and Milan prisons, I researched it and found lots of instances of designer bags and all sorts of interesting design objects being made by prisoners in Eastern Europe and around – jewellery and all sorts. Considering a lot of prisoners attempt to go into self employment the skills that are learnt producing proper saleable items on the outside are immense. I would have thought it was a massive turn on for employability skills as well as the more obvious soft outcomes. DSC_0130


At Central St Martins there is a Design Against Crime department, I have met with them a few times and we are looking at working together. They have various themes to their work, from empathy and resilience to the creativity and skills of the prisoners to create pieces. They advise and develop  anti- crime products – bicycle locks that are unbreakable and anti ATM devices. I would love to see some well thought of designers champion the creativity and craft skills of the prisoners. I had thought also, with all this emphasis on the building of new prisons – how about consulting with the prisoners about designing new prisons – or even the prison staff.

Since writing this blog Stretch has had a lot of very interesting and enlightening meetings with DACRC and found out more about their work. In fact they do everything I suggested and more! They are pioneering an ‘Innovate Inside’ programme which is, as I suggested (not on my suggestion ), a programme of work that develops prison innovation from the inside.


Fifty shades of Bergen

I feel like I have been through the mill since the optimism of my last post. I am tired and Bergen is very wet and grey with low cloud sitting on the mountains, low cloud sitting on my brain. I had a bit of a research-crisis just before I started at the prison, a bit of a ‘whats the point?’ moment prompted by a critic (or maybe a voice in my head), who basically said:

“The UK has a million more problems than Norway – is a million times more complex – Norway has the luxury of living at snails pace, where things can be seen more clearly. Their range and volume of offences is smaller. The UK invented the modern prison – they will never go against their own blueprint – its ingrained and will never change. What ever you learn – you wont change anything back home”

I agree with much of that, obviously the social situation in Norway is totally different and the numbers are totally different – but surely that does not mean there is nothing to learn? Exchanging and sharing good practice is always useful? Or is it ? What can I really do with Stretch to make any difference?  Do any policy makers really listen to me? After soul-searching, coffee, getting lost and wet I had a word myself and decided that on the whole I am an optimistic person. I am a campaigner – a believer. I want to believe that change is possible, and that maybe I can affect it somehow, I have faith and hope. By the way, Norwegians are 2nd in the worlds top coffee drinking nations? How bizarre is that? Italy doesn’t even make the list. Here’s a picture of some beautiful fjords, they helped me find some perspective anyway.DSC_0102.jpg

I know I can’t change the world, but I can scratch away at a few problems in my own little niche, at least I am doing something. I probably should not have arranged to to deliver a storytelling workshop with the prison, as I am not here to help the prisoners of Bergen – I am here to talk to staff and observe systems and bring the knowledge back. I wanted to do one workshop while away however, it’s how I really get under the skin of the prison. Staff and prisoners open up to me, we do a lot of talking.


Bergen prison is a bigger prison that the last Norwegian prison I visited 4 years ago, it is considered ‘big’ at full capacity holding a ‘whopping’ 650. I was met by a very jolly newly qualified craft-teacher-guard called Ellen, she was to look after me for my stay. I quizzed her about the training, 2 years paid apprenticeship to get on the programme – people get turned down all the time, they ask you bring another skill, some are carpenters, engineers etc. I am getting a bit obsessed with staff training issue, really think it could make a huge difference in the feel of the prison. The approach to the prison was as gloomy as any British prison, the prison wall is huge and grey – this isn’t the famous Halden Prison with its sea views and decking. If it looks like Wormword Scrubs what could I possible learn here? ( the doubter piped up). Inside how ever the atmosphere is open and relaxed. Like the Australian prisons I really favoured, it is set out as campus with 5 blocks that the prisoners work their way around, from ‘remand’ through to the ‘half way house’ out side the walls. The middle blocks were set out with maybe 8 singe cells around a kitchen and living area.



I did not see many prisoners. It was not encouraged to disturb them, they were asleep in their rooms. There were workshops, lots and lots of Norwegian wood, metal work, jewellery, soap and candles. The grounds were far from perfect however, lots of building going on, the library was closed and had been for a while, and the use of technology was scant. This wasn’t the prison nirvana I was expecting by any means! But – what pulls Bergen Fengsal away from the pack is the community spirit, there is definitely something happening with the mood and the relationships in there which is unusual. I have started a digital storytelling project, with women in the end, which I will expand on in a more dedicated storytelling blog next. I have interviewed a few male prisoners and talked to and observed the staff. One career criminal, who had been in and out of prison most of his life and is now serving a 12 year sentence, tried to explain it to me, he said;

“I have been in Halden and it was a strange place, even though it has very good equipment and computers in rooms – the Director only appears when the newspapers are there and there are no guard around to answer your questions or talk to. The security systems mean you have apparent freedom and swipe cards, but there are more fights than in Bergen, prisoners go a bit crazy”

So it would seem that a certain amount of authority present is better. In Bergen the guards are not over friendly with the prisoners, but each one mentors about three prisoners, and prisoners do not walk around on their own – they are pretty much always with a guard – in a lot of prisons there is often a ‘free flow’ time when they can make their own way between places, opening up opportunity for bullying and abuse – the prisoners do not seem to mind. They genuinely appear to like the officers and in fact like each other, perhaps this is the empathetic prison? Lots to learn after all



On my way to the criminal justice mecca: Norway

I am sitting in a sunny Copenhagen suburb preparing for my onward trip to Norway this evening. Over the next ten days I have a busy schedule visiting different prisons across Norway and looking at their use of technology and the arts. ‘Stretch Digital’ has been unfolding in the UK over the last 6 months and we are finally getting up to full capacity and thinking about embedding our learning. We had a great write up with the Prisoners Education Trust this month. There have been a few issues with the projects in English prisons and in the community – every prison seems to have such different rules and security issues. What is considered okay in HMP Peterborough is not okay in HMP Bronzefield, which is confusing for my staff. I have learnt a lot about trying offer the right kind of support to the team, who bring their own creativity and vulnerabilities to a sensitive process. I have realised that I took a lot of my own knowledge for granted, things I was doing for years in prisons and my methods that don’t always come naturally to other people – we are all learning.

The Norwegian prison service have been very helpful, I have a packed itinerary. My first few days are in Bergen prison, which is the only prison with male and female inmates on the same site – I like that – I work in HMP Peterborough which is the same. I also worked at the AMC in Canberra which was the only one in Australia. Even though they do not mix at all I am convinced mixed prisons have different feel to them. A few nights ago the Director of Peterborough attended an art opening of Stretch Artist in Residence Kay Goodridge and we were chatting, he told me that HMP Peterborough was the ‘showpiece’ prison and used in the wider Sodexo estate as a case study of how to do things – I am so pleased that Stretch have such a presence there ( He also said that art had been re-introduced to the curriculum for well- being, I almost fell over, the women are even getting their own dedicated art teacher that they have not had before).


In my planning for the trip away I was told that I could not bring my usual equipment into the prison in Bergen for the workshops. I was surprised as 4 years ago I travelled to Norway and delivered a few workshops with a local museum and prison up in Molde, I thought they knew what I was all about. Once again I realised that even in Norway we are at the mercy of individual prison directors. In the UK and Australia and in Norway now I find each prison so different, it really is an exploration. With further explanation they said I could bring the equipment – so I have packed up my digital story kit bag. One prison I am visiting has internet access, one prison I have to bring everything in on a memory stick – other prisons memory sticks are banned. What is the reasoning behind these security decisions I wonder? Upon my return I will be looking to gather all my thoughts and information about the use of this equipment for well-being and perhaps make some recommendations. I honestly think the ‘danger’ of connectivity is ill-perceived, to keep up with the times and not leave prisons and prisoners in the dark ages prisons need to look at using all available tools and technology.

I sometimes give a little talk or rant about prison reform and I hail Norway as the ‘mecca of criminal justice’ – where reoffending rates are at 9% to our 60%, where rehabilitation runs though their systems’ core. In Norway working in a prison is a high status job, the guards are trained to degree level as mentors, teachers and therapists – Sodexo take 8 weeks to train their guards. When I worked in Norway 4 years ago it was fascinating. How amazing that the prisoners even knew enough English to work with me! What was soon apparent was how similar prisoners are everywhere, from Australia to Scotland to Norway, often the same problems that lead to prison; poverty, abuse, drugs and plain old curiosity. I hope Norway lives up to its reputation – inspires and energises me – bring it on.





Final conference thoughts on prison education

My presentation was scheduled for 10 am on the Tuesday morning. All I had to do was survive the ‘conference dinner’ in tact. No mean feat, those Aussies sure can drink. I was feeling bit flat before the dinner I had been meeting and greeting so many strangers and ‘selling my self’,  gets a bit tiring. The conference dinner started with a talk by Kylie Farmer, a proud indigenous Australian actress who has done a lot of work in her original language. She was amazing, beautiful, charming and had a lot of thought provoking stories from her culture and her people. Kylie talked a lot about language, she had presented a children’s TV programme in her original language – I since found out she’s done a TED talk on it. She stresses the importance of language to feel connected to your community and the land. The connection with the ‘elders’ of the community that raised her and the passing on of the language leads to a deeper and more authentic connection.  It made me quite sad listening to her that I could never interact with my own mother and her family in their mother tongue of Italian. Perhaps a bit of a feeling of ‘otherness’ or ‘outsider’ from my childhood comes from this.  It probably has deeper repercussions than my parents or I realise, for my connection to that community, one to save for my therapist – but its not really rocket science is it? (*books Italian lessons, again…)  I did end up on the dance floor, like a bad wedding, in the corner of the conference dinner room, seems its the Juvenile workers – the ‘Juve’s’ who can party the hardest.



There had been a few sessions on digital technology in prisons – what appears to be apparent, the same as in the UK I think, that there is no consensus or joined up thinking. In fact one presenter was reporting back on a European conference and said the same. This is a global lack of consensus then – there are pockets of innovation and some prisons trying things but it is dotted around and varied with mixed successes. It was agreed it would be good to have a joined up ‘evidence library’ of what is happening where and what works. We all hear about the connectivity in Norway, but even there it is not every prison, I saw some great projects in Australia that would not go in the UK, but then again I am taking iPads into Sodexo prisons but other prisons laugh me out of town at the suggestion.

New Zealand were piloting some interesting work. They felt is was a duty of care to prepare people for the online world they go out to, the feel ‘obligated’ to train people in that technology, which I strongly agree with – so they offer a few courses online, real online courses like driving theory and things that people in prison might really want to learn.

I had a good turn out for my session, about 30-40 people, it was a success. Many people came up and thanked me and said how moved they had been. Of course I played my trump card, where was the prisoner voice? why am I the only ex-prisoner here?  People earnestly held my hands and kissed my cheeks in thanks and said they had been moved to tears. Result. I spoke about my new employee Fabian Spencer, an ex – prisoner, actor and now going into prisons as a Stretch story teller.

I spoke about the importance of celebrating the good stories, or providing peer support. The art teachers and the creatives all ‘got it’ of course – also a lot of interest from some weighty criminologists. I met a fascinating English couple now living in Australia – both Doctors of Criminology in their 60’s – he had spent time in prison many moons ago. I had really wanted to show some of the work from the AMC centre but they had not been cleared by security yet, I am still waiting. The team at Victoria who had been so supportive were thrilled at the response – we talked about ways they could incorporate the methods into their work. If I pushed it I think they might invite me out to do some training with their education staff. Fancy that.

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Tuesday afternoon saw people presenting their academic research, sounded deathly dull and I was suffering from mental over load already – but actually turned out to be really interesting. Anne Pike is a from the UK and she works for the Open University and was looking at how prisoners and  ex-prisoners cope with being students. A few universities have thought about packages for prisons, as so much of being a student is now delivered online. She also touched on ‘asking the prisoners themselves’ what they want. Fiona McGregor made an inspirational presentation on looking at prisoners relationship to education in terms of desistance theory. I have a couple of possible PhD ideas that have been swimming around the back of my mind for while, one around storytelling and desistance theory and one around using your imagination to fight disconnection. As I listened to their presentations,  I thought ‘I really could do this’ – I might make fresh enquiries upon my return to the UK.

The conference wrapped up without too much of a fanfare, I was mentally exhausted and sloped off quietly, I could chase every one up in emails. On the whole it was what I had expected, pockets of brilliance but a general slip in to US style practice. Very difficult to have a unified thought with such differing state laws and vast geographical and cultural differences.  As in the UK, very much affected by the politics and public opinions of the day.