In most creative writing classes there is more than a hint of competitiveness. Here, in this group, there was kindness, an understanding of what it has taken to write a story, poem or song. Each reading received a round of applause. The comments and discussion were generous.
There was a remarkable lack of bravado, not a hint of macho bragging. I have, until now, been sceptical of the theory that writing something down can act as therapy. The idea that storytelling makes a person saner, happier or more emotionally evolved was hardly supported by the characters of some of those who do it for a living, after all.
I had never been convinced. But now, listening the writers of Magilligan, I was reminded how it can order thoughts, give a sense of perspective, sometimes make sense of the senseless. For prisoners with children, writing stories kept them in touch with their families. Magilligan, an enlightened place where the importance of connection to the outside world is recognised, works with the Northern Ireland Library Service on something called the Big Book Share. Prisoners are encouraged to record stories for their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, who are then given a CD of the reading with a copy of the book or story.
One prisoner told me that his eight-year-old son, who had never previously liked books, was now one of the best readers in his class — thanks to his imprisoned father. Perhaps it is time for governments, local authorities and teachers to recognise the restorative power of creativity. For too long, it has been seen as a namby-pamby add-on to more important subjects.
The day I spent in Magilligan showed me how people with unimaginably harsh backgrounds can articulate their feelings and thoughts through the medium of fiction. It helps them communicate and provides a much-needed empathy. These are more than merely personal benefits; they must help in the world of interviews and jobs, too. Successive governments, obsessed by business, qualifications and exams, have ignored the other kind of growth which creative writing provides. In the same Budget which championed compulsory maths for all, cuts in business rates will reduce still further the funds of local councils with the result that public library closures, a great scandal of the past two administrations, will be accelerated.
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It is time to press the giant red button and change this resistance to creativity. Libraries and schemes such as the Big Book Share provide hope and potential for young and old. There is no reason why storytelling and writing poetry should not be within the curriculum, developing parts of the brain and spirit which mathematics cannot reach.
Back in Magilligan, the writing class was interrupted by a two-hour lockdown. While the writers were in their cells, I was shown around an exhibition about Auschwitz that the prisoners had curated in three of the Nissen huts.
Schoolchildren visit the prison, hear the grim stories from the past. Imaginatively, a connection has been made to bullying in schools and respect for minorities. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here.
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Under The Gun Theater - Performing Arts
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Students attended rehearsals and meetings of the Alumni Theatre Company, which was preparing a new performance of a group of poems they had written about what happens to a person post-incarceration. Students took photographs and sketched portraits of the writers during these meetings. They also drew from photographs of past performances.
Content to Cover: The Design of Books with Prison Performing Arts
Each student was charged with designing and illustrating a chapter that adapted texts written by the incarcerated or alumni writers. The chapters were then collated into a book that was printed and bound by an on-demand service, published by PPA.
Preparation of digital files for print production was the final step in the project. The final book was designed and produced by the student team, with each student taking ownership of a chapter. Skip to Navigation.