How do we bridge the divide between prisoners and society?

A prisoner stands on one side of the law, and the free man stands on the other. But what really separates these two people, and how do we bridge the divide? The following four independent organisations are working with inmates and ex-prisoners to turn their lives around. Are people born ‘evil’ or do some of the system’s children simply fall through the cracks?

“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
 Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

Behind a scattering of modern outbuildings and extended wings, the redbrick towers of HMP Bristol, a Victorian prison founded in 1883, rise up to the sky. At the centre, it’s a surprisingly traditional building, windows crosshatched with bars and high walls lined with barbed wire. But beyond the old-fashioned exterior there is a progressive space for change – a workshop, about the size of a community hall, where inmates participate in a number of rehabilitative projects.

When we arrive, at the beginning of June, a group of prisoners in the far corner of the workshop are assembling remembrance poppies – an envied duty as these prisoners hold the forces in high regard – and in the central section, among cranks, tires and oily rags, another group are working for BikeBack – a bicycle recycling project set up by Bristol-based charity Life Cycle UK. The workshop leader, Dave Rudland, looks over the trainee mechanics as they strip down frames, clean parts and reassemble the bikes that will be sold at a market in the city at the end of the month. “I love doing this,” says John*, thirty weeks into a two-year sentence. “It gets so boring, being inside.”

Of the six hundred-plus prisoners held at HMP Bristol, many are on remand and will likely be moved on within a matter of weeks – a system-wide phenomenon referred to as “churn”, which sees prisoners transported, at random, between various prisons to deal with overcrowding and local, pre-trial incarceration. It makes it difficult for prisoners to form relationships with rehabilitators and lift themselves out of the repetitive cycle of crime. In fact, the stats say over fifty per cent of these prisoners will reoffend within a year of release.

But for inmates like John, who has spent four hours a day, five days a week at BikeBack, for the majority of his thirty weeks inside, it’s exactly these projects that offer a way out. “Prison gives you time to reflect,” he says. “Once I’m on road [free], I’m never coming back in here.” Another inmate, who was homeless and addicted to heroin at the time of his imprisonment, says he will use his newfound skills as a mechanic to approach bike shops and try to get a job. On the ‘horror’ of prison he says: “At least you’re safe in here, and you have somewhere to stay.”

Prisons are too soft, sceptics often exclaim. But Jacqui, 62, a volunteer at HMP Wandsworth disagrees. “Prison is not a holiday camp,” she says angrily. “It’s a holiday camp from hell. I mean Wandsworth prison was designed with one-man cells, and each cell now has two men. It is not a pleasant place. But the prisoners are very good as a whole, they’re very accepting. People say, ‘Oh, but they have televisions,’ but they have to work for those televisions, and they’re tiny. I personally would go insane if I shared a cell with someone who had the telly on loud when I was locked up seventeen hours a day… A lot of inmates are mentally unstable.” In fact, according to a recent Green Paper commissioned by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke called Breaking the Cycle, over seventy per cent of sentenced prisoners in the UK suffer from two or more mental health disorders, with 10 per cent of those suffering with psychotic illnesses.

Jacqui has volunteered at Fine Cell Work – a charity that teaches needlework to prisoners – for eight years and she has been amazed at the enthusiasm from prisoners, considering the effeminate nature of the craft. “In actual fact the men get a lot of credence from the other men because they get paid well [a third of the sale],” she says. “And they’re just so desperate for something to do. There’s an awful lot of sitting around doing nothing in prison, and wasted time isn’t good for anyone… Many prisoners get depressed and spend a staggering amount of time asleep, because it passes the time… I mean they’ve had very, very mixed up lives some of them. I used to run after school clubs and we sometimes felt we could see the kids who would end up in Wandsworth, aged seven, because it’s a vicious circle. They’re not getting support from home, perhaps. Some of them can’t get a job because they’ve got no skills. So you feel, well, if I’d started life like that, I could have ended up here, too.”

And it’s not just the guys in charge who believe in the transformative power of ‘having something to do’. Feedback from inmates suggests self-development activities, like needlework, really do seep through and have a positive impact. Design co-ordinator at Fine Cell Work, Elena Hall, explains: “We’ve got letters from prisoners saying they’ve stopped self-harming because they’ve finally found something that they’re good at, they’ve got pride in, and that calms them down… It’s not going to be everyone but I think the majority of people that we work with have a positive transformation through FCW. One prisoner, who was in isolation at Wandsworth because his involvement in gang culture made him a risk to other prisoners, now visits schools to educate children about staying away from crime… Jacqui worked with the prisoner for six or seven years and he said it was feeling part of a family that helped him turn his life around.”

Of course, some people who have committed heinous crimes may never re-enter society, but the majority of prisoners will and their world-view will be considerably shaped by their time inside. In the US – where a prison population of 2.5 million (twenty-five per cent of the global prison population and one in every hundred Americans) swamps the UK’s figure of 85,000 – the issue is particularly poignant. Former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer – whose seminal ‘Kick Out The Jams’ became the sound of the disenfranchised working class in the seventies – is spearheading a musical revolution stateside with Jail Guitar Doors, an organisation founded in the UK by protest musician Billy Bragg. Named after the Clash song (which Joe Strummer wrote with Wayne in mind), the initiative aims to empower inmates through music. Wayne explains: “We encourage prisoners to use guitars as tools to express themselves… There seems to be this dark side to humanity that thinks if you treat someone badly, they’ll get better. But the only way people ever change for the better is through a change of heart. Education isn’t enough, if you educate a serious criminal; you have an educated serious criminal. It takes a change of heart, and that requires being part of a community and being responsible towards and for other people… We think the process of writing a song is a way that incarcerated people can express themselves in new and non-confrontational ways. It’s a way to process complex feelings and emotions and then communicate them to other people.”

It was music that got Wayne through his time in prison after he was arrested and convicted in 1975 for dealing drugs. He met Red Rodney, an American jazz trumpeter formerly of Charlie Parker’s quintet, and formed a prison band to play in the Sunday chapel. He served only two years, but thanks to punitive measures introduced over the next forty years, a similar crime, according to Wayne, could warrant a twenty-year sentence today. He explains: “People are afraid because they see terrible reports on the local television news of horrendous acts of violence, and everyone thinks that’s waiting around the corner for them. When in fact people are no more violent today than they have ever been. Your chances of being a victim of a violent crime is very low, but there’s money in promoting this idea and there’s political power in it and when politicians discovered they could win votes by being ‘tough on crime’ it became a real force in American culture, and I think in world culture. So they built all these prisons, they passed all these laws and they sentenced people to decades and decades of imprisonment. But now it’s all blown up in their faces because the country is broke; no one can afford to maintain these prisons and in fact the people they’ve locked up aren’t getting better, they’re getting worse. And it’s because they locked them up for so long in such terrible conditions.”

Part of rehabilitating prisoners back into society involves making prisons more transparent and breaking down stereotypes of ex-prisoners as dangerous, hopeless cases. Although they can be sensationalist, Wayne thinks Louis Theroux’s documentaries – which go inside some of America’s toughest penitentiaries, including Miami’s high-security ‘super jail’ – are a good start. “The documentaries tell you the truth about life in prison in America today,” says Wayne. “Some parts really glorify fear and violence, but generally, I think it’s good that people can see what’s going on… We need to start having this conversation and it’s not a cool conversation, but I think musicians and artists are uniquely positioned to make it a cool conversation. If we can start this conversation now, then when legislation is ready to get passed, everyone will know what we’re talking about and we’ll be able to make a political change… Prisoners may have broken a law, but they’re regular people like you and I. Only a very small percentage of them are violent criminals that should be separated from the rest of us. A society is not judged on its rich and powerful, it’s judged on the least powerful. How do we treat them?”

Of course, the true test of rehabilitation is when a person leaves the prison gates. Dean Stalham, a playwright, artist and founder of Art Saves Lives in London, offers support, through creativity, for marginalised people in society. “Art Saves Lives has an open-door policy,” he says, sitting in a lecture room at Goldsmiths University, where he is helping young offenders make a documentary. “Anyone can come to us and get their scripts read and acted out with proper feedback. I work with theatres to use their spaces for free, so my artists get to perform on a West End stage and that’s what really lifts their confidence and self-esteem to move on and do other things… The art world is split into the inner circle and the outer circle, and there are more people on the outside looking in than there are on the inside looking out. That barrier has got to come down, because so many people have got talent. You can find people with talent everywhere, irrelevant of where they’ve been taught or trained. There are these television programmes that go on estates to find ‘the next big thing’ but it’s not helpful because they drop them as soon as the credits roll.”

Dean spent fifteen years in and out of prison for a variety of crimes that culminated in a six-million pound art heist – including the theft of four Warhols, thirteen Chagalls and thirty-three Dalis. “It was a cycle I was involved in from the age of sixteen,” he says, “and writing, for me, has broken that cycle. It’s really positive.” Dean won an art competition through a rehabilitative project at HMP Wandsworth and left prison in 2004 determined not to reoffend. He formed Art Saves Lives in 2009 to help others do the same and although it exists on a shoestring, Dean’s endless enthusiasm and passion is pushing it forward onto exciting new pastures. “Our new theatre opens in July,” he says, “and I want it to feature completely new writing. I’ve had a few people who’ve been turned down by big theatres come to me, but this is not the rejects theatre. I want new, fresh, raw writing that people are taking chances with. I just want to see drive.”

And despite waning interest from the fickle world of critics, Dean has continued to do well with his own work – his new play Secrets From The Long Grass runs at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until July – beyond the “ex-offender” mantle. “I learnt very early on that I was going to be invited to the door, but I was not going to be invited in,” he says. “Criminals are talented people. They’re creative, because they have to be. Sometimes when you’re in an art class and you’re next to someone who can’t read or write – which is why, perhaps, they’ve always been involved in crime – and you see them pick up a pen for the first time, fucking hell, it’s amazing. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. And then they say, ‘I used to like drawing when I was seven,’ and you can see them reconnect with something inside that has been lost for a long time. That’s fucking powerful.”

***

Back at HMP Bristol, the inmates are cleaning their tools and tidying the workshop before they have to go back into lock-up. The more experienced among them help the less experienced and they all show a lot of respect for Dave, although there have been difficult prisoners, he acknowledges, “like any classroom.”

James*, halfway through his eighteen-month sentence, says he is really grateful for the work he does with BikeBack. “Prison makes you reassess the important things,” he says, pulling up his overalls. “And for me, that’s my family. I made some mistakes, which I regret, but when I get out I know that I’m not ever coming back here. No way. There’s more to life than this.”

* Prisoners names have been changed out of respect