Our penal system is not geared towards rehabilitation and further brutalises already damaged people. It’s a truth we don’t want to face.by Cathy Rentzenbrink / October 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
David had been in prison for a few months when he wrote his first poem. Valentine’s Day was approaching and he couldn’t think how to mark the occasion. There was no way to buy his wife a present, so he decided to write her a poem. He found it easier to express himself through poetry than any other way so he carried on, exploring his regrets for his offence and detailing the vagaries of prison life.
Three years later, after his release, when he was back, as prison slang has it, “on the out,” it was David’s probation officer who suggested he apply for the Koestler Arts mentoring scheme which matches former offenders with a mentor who can support them in their creative process after their release.
That’s where I came in. For the past year, I’ve been meeting David roughly once a month in cafés. He’s softly spoken with white hair and carries a walking stick because of his arthritis. We probably look like father and daughter as we sit in a quiet corner drinking our coffee and discussing both the basics of punctuation and the big questions of life writing: How do we wrestle our messy experiences on to the page? What obligations do we owe to the people we might write about? Does writing—digging it all back up again—ultimately help us to reconcile with ourselves and grasp the possibility of moving on?
Over our time together, David has worked on a series of pieces that tell his story from the court case to his release, covering the fear and disorientation of the first few days during which there was a bang on the cell door to tell him that his father had died. He decided not to go to the funeral because another prisoner warned him he’d be handcuffed to an officer throughout. He didn’t want to bring shame on the proceedings.
I mentor lots of writers and find it a highly satisfying part of my work. The only difference between David and the non-offenders that I mentor is that he doesn’t want to be published. “I’ve brought enough shame on my family,” he says, shuddering at the thought of more exposure. “No one needs me…