Wiltshire’s HMP Erlestoke hosted its third Penned Up festival this March. Held over two weeks, it featured numerous guest speakers from the world of literature offering inspiration, knowledge and creativity to the inmates. One guest speaker was Lord John Bird, MBE and founder of The Big Issue, there to talk about how he went from homelessness, to prison, to the House of Lords. Lord Bird kept his audience entertained with witty anecdotes, conveyed with much gesticulating and a full range of accents.
I was there to report on the talk and along with the other men in the room, I listened intently as Lord Bird explained how he hadn’t even picked up a book until a prison officer handed him one when he was 15 years old. That prison officer mentored him and eventually taught him to read and write, opening a whole new world of opportunities for him. It lit the fire for Lord Bird’s lifelong love affair with books and literature. He saw the effect it could have, and the difference it could make.
Essentially, that’s what Penned Up is about, helping men and women in prison to engage with the written word. It doesn’t matter if it’s introducing new people to books, helping to provide new reading experiences, providing advice and guidance to budding authors, or simply offering relief from the boredom of prison. There is something for everyone. That is why Penned Up is causing such a stir within the walls of our prisons and creating a legacy for itself. It offers new ideas and something new to talk about on the wings.
Penned Up is the brain child of David Kendall and Mark Hewitt. In 2017 they set out to discover if it was possible to hold a festival inside Erlestoke prison walls. A committee comprising inmates and staff was made up, a list of desired guests was compiled, invitations were sent out and slowly but surely, a festival began to take shape. The Penned Up in 2017 was a huge success, including guests like Charley Boorman, Billy Bragg, Charlie Mortimer, Erwin James and Noel “Razor” Smith. (Future Penned Up events included Tony Adams and Levi Roots.) People soon began to realise that they had created something that would continue to grow and spread throughout the prison system. The buzz word was LEGACY.
My personal experience of Penned Up is unique and would lead me full circle, back to the same room I had sat in as a committee member two years earlier. This time I’m watching Lord Bird as a freelance journalist commissioned to cover the event. My story has become entwined with Penned Up. Given a life sentence for GBH at the age of 29, all hope seemed lost. I battled away bouncing from prison to prison, engaging in courses and trying to work towards my eventual parole. Arriving in HMP Erlestoke in 2015, on what I hoped would be the final leg of my prison journey, my release was far from a forgone conclusion, I still needed to prove I was no longer a risk to the public.
It reignited my inner writer, the one that had been hiding within me since I was a kid in Epsom,
Prison continued, with each mundane day rolling into the next. That is until I started working on the prison magazine, The Manor. It reignited my inner writer, the one that had been hiding within me since I was a kid in Epsom. I threw myself into it with vigour and started to have pipedreams of a future in writing. I even started writing my autobiography.