Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Behind Bars; Observing the 80s at Lewes Prison

by Lucy Robinson

Mass Observation has taken our work in many directions but in May last year we found ourselves entering a Prison…

Inside-Lewes-The Argus.Prison

( Image, Inside Lewes Prison – The Argus)

We had the idea of working with prisoners at Lewes, because back in 2011 we had put out a call to Prison Librarians nationally to encourage inmates to submit a day diary for our annual 12th May Day Diary event. This proved successful with over 14 prisons participating and the submitted diaries are now held within our archive and have been used on numerous occasions for teaching and group visits.

So, in partnership with East Sussex Library Service, we worked with Poet and workshop facilitator Evlynn Sharp to deliver three 2hr creative writing workshops that drew upon Observing the 80s as inspiration for creative writing exercises. As an experienced facilitator in prisons nationally, Evlynn was our much needed guide!

The challenge we faced was the restriction on technology and the internet in prison, so our workshop plans needed considerable creativity! This presented us with an appreciation that the term ‘open access’ does not in fact extend to all and certainly not to those in Prison.

The result, with the skill and warmth of Evlynn, was a truly inspiring, moving and educational experience for all of us involved.

It was like stepping into the unknown as we approached the impressive prison gates. Being reminded by the staff on duty that in wearing a lovely floral scarf, we were ‘asking to be strangled,’ brought home the potential risks.

In fact, in reality, the Prison library building was a perfectly formed, small room which felt comfortable, safe and secure. Very much like a local community library.

The first session took place before our 12th May Day Diary call, so it was a good chance to talk about the diaries we had received from prisoners and encourage them to write their own. The sense that they were being given a voice and that this could be heard amongst the thousands of voices within the archive was powerful.

From the start, the group were very open and keen to share their stories and their experiences, all fully engaging with the activities. The enthusiasm shown in undertaking exercises and sharing their stories, is perhaps suggestive of the limited scope for creative out put and cathartic writing in prison.

We talked about Observing the 80s and shared some duplicate examples of MOP materials. The Observing 80s materials were used as thematic starting points for the creative writing exercises and for prompting discussions about 1980s and MO itself. Some of the men talked about their regrets for the lives they lived during the 80s and the choices they made which had led to their incarceration.

The writings produced were raw and at times moving. It was quite an experience to see one of the participants physically change from an awkward agitated state to one of more calm, with a sense of pride in his writing. Evlynn’s ability to validate their work in her encouraging style visibly enhanced their self-esteem.

• Energetic, powerful, emotional

• I found the ability to write for experienced, sympathetic listeners to comment really eye opening

• Fun, friendly, positive

• It helps to reflect on how we feel and how we can move on

We are very keen to explore this work further if funding is successful, so watch this space!.

Kirsty Pattrick, MO Project Officer and Suzanne Rose, MO Education and Outreach Officer

Suzanne Rose

Suzanne Rose

Kirsty Pattrick

Kirsty Pattrick