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 bringing attention to myself.”
He is writing purely for himself, and sometimes for his wife for whom he feels huge gratitude. David looked forward to his release but it is complex to be “on the out.” He had got used to the routines of prison. He passed retirement age while inside and feels too ashamed to try to grow his very small social circle.
I’ve been going into prisons to do reading and writing events and workshops since 2012 and always find it moving and stimulating—but usually I do my talk and it is all over. Getting to know David has taught me a lot and I am often humbled in the face of his resilience.
The original Koestler Awards were founded in 1962 by the writer Arthur Koestler who had spent time in prison in Franco’s Spain, where he witnessed executions before later being detained at Pentonville as an illegal immigrant. He was not a nice man and treated women badly but he campaigned against the death penalty and, when that was abolished, thought that if people were going to be locked up for long periods of time, then something should be done to engage them.
David agrees: “If you have a dangerous dog and lock it in a shed, and feed and water it but no more, then, when you let it out, you’ll be releasing a dangerous dog. You have to work in changing the dog’s behaviour if you want to make society better.”
The man on the street, though, spits bile at the thought that prison should be about anything other than punishment. Which brings us back to the dangerous dog problem. David is literate and well resourced but many of those in prison have been failed by society and have very few skills. Our penal system is not geared towards rehabilitation and further brutalises already damaged people. It’s a truth we don’t want to face.
It suits governments—and all parties do it—to have enemies from whom the electorate need to be protected. All politicians know that being seen to be tough on crime is the sensible vote-winning position. Really, the thorny question of how we as a society treat transgressors, needs a radical, non-partisan, blank-sheet-of-paper approach. What are the chances of that? In the meantime, enlisting in Koestler Arts seems a good deed in a dark world.