Why run a literature festival in a prison?
Aren’t the majority of people in prison barely literate? There are some who need literacy support, but most are just not practised readers. I could see the need. Books and reading can give people headspace. A library orderly in HMP Wandsworth told me people ask for a book to “get their head straight”. If you can get the focus to read you can get the mental agility needed to negotiate prison life. You can’t fix people – people fix themselves – but the arts give people a chance to look at their own lives critically, and see other lives unlike their own.
Prisons are sterile places – ideas go in circles. Bringing in new speakers refreshes people’s attitudes and thinking. Nowadays there have been a couple of other arts festivals in prisons: Leicester, and Stafford – but back in 2015 there was just HMP Parc, which has a long-running link with Hay Festival, and HMP Thameside, which runs regular author events. But I wanted more than that. In the end I corralled an old friend, Mark Hewitt (director of Lewes Live Literature), and said, “Why don’t we do something at HMP Lewes?”
Prison is an intense space.
That first Penned Up was a leap of faith for everyone. To have a two-week festival with speakers, all of whom need escorting to and from the gate, in a place where there are no mobile phones, and movements are restricted. Where at any point events can be cancelled because of a disturbance. The organising is much more than deciding who you would like to invite. That first festival gave us a name and a model of working that we’ve stuck with in the following four years and six festivals in three very different prisons: Lewes, Downview and Erlestoke.
Prison is an intense space. Social media doesn’t distract people but neither will they automatically give you their time. The events give a space for honesty and openness, and the prisoners and the speakers rise to that. At Lewes one of the men asked the speaker, “Why come into a prison?” That one question opened up a larger discussion about how we expect prisoners to be, about who they really are.
Fab article in this week’s @BigIssue from @manwithbooks on organising litfests in prisons. “You can’t fix people – people fix themselves – but the arts give people a chance to look at their own lives critically, and to see other lives unlike their own.” pic.twitter.com/Sjoa9E3KUG
— Fiona Joseph (@FionaJoseph) March 6, 2019