I’d have felt more at home on the moon. I mean, nothing says ‘welcome’ like a fifteen foot wall topped by razor wire. And yet, my trip to HMP Pentonville was surprisingly inspirational.
I was there just before Christmas in relation to a project I’m doing for a corporate giving programme. Because we were there to meet various inmates who together write ‘The Voice of the Ville’, I was scared. Not that I’d be attacked or detained, but rather just of the unknown: the alien set-up, alien building, people of probably quite alien norms.
The first challenge was crossing London with neither money nor phone, for I’d been warned that they can disappear from prison receptions where visitors must leave them. No phone! My reliance on it is more of a tic than I’d realised – for the time, the map, the Twittering. My colleague and I had to arrange a rendez-vous in advance: how 1980s.
The prison reception has all the charm of an industrial loading facility, with added signs about ‘rub-down searches’.
The early-ness of our arrival causes us to be forgotten, so by the time we actually get collected, we’re late. A load of keys unlock a door. It’s shut behind us. Another door is opened, and shut behind us. And another. The doors, keys and bars are startling, despite being totally unsurprising. Society takes seriously the business of secreting the gentlemen we’re about to meet.
Though I don’t know what I expected – cells? riots? murderers? – the giant Christmas tree in the prison’s central hall wasn’t on my list. Was I really expecting some cheer-less slum-like Victorian poor house?
Four wings radiate from the baubled hall. Even the architecture here is alien.
As we’re led down one wing to the newspaper room, we’re trying to disguise our craning to glimpse into the cells we’re passing. Cells – as seen on Porridge and endless films – but these house real people, with real stories.
We arrive during ‘free flow’: the transfer window at the beginning and end of the morning and afternoon sessions when prisoners move (accompanied) around the building. It’s rather like the school bell, with added locks.
The newspaper room is rather like a sixth form common room. Maybe 10 foot square, it’s carpeted with a big table in the middle and desks bearing computers round the edge. But the alien is here too; signs on the wall prohibit printing ‘letters to family, letters to court…’
They start to arrive. Instinctively, my colleague and I stand and move to shake the hand of each man as he enters, as we would for any other meeting. You probably don’t get that too often if you’re a prisoner. There is, of course, only one question in our minds but we never ask it: I ask a prison-expert friend that evening and her answer makes me glad I hadn’t asked before.
One of them is huge. 10 foot tall with giant biceps. As he sits, all I can think is that he’s between me and the door…
They’re like grumpy teenagers – surly, rather monosyllabic, hard to get talking. But, man, when they get going, it all comes out. This – the Voice of the Ville (VoV) – is where they get to create, to express, to be heard, to be somebody. “You see yourself [i.e., your skills and work] developing. You don’t get a lot of ego boosts in here [prison] but you do here.” These guys may not have had many ego boosts in their lives.
The paper is a joint effort – and there’s not a lot of that in here either.
It’s a position of responsibility. Every prison gets a copy and since “there’s people here on suicide watch, you have to make sure you’re upbeat. You don’t wanna tip anybody over the edge.” Few writers have that responsibility.
It’s a haven. “There are violent people here” – who, it transpires, generally have low literacy, and develop their bravado and aggression as coping mechanisms. They’re not in the VoV team, by definition. So the VoV room is calmer than the rest of the prison. Selection bias even on the inside.
And it’s interesting. They read newspapers and books and get some brainfood. Reading matter is highly prized – so I make the ultimate sacrifice, giving one guy the copy of The Economist which is in my bag. (He’s never heard of it, and thinks it’ll be full of numbers: I suggest he starts with the book reviews.) Hard copies are all there is, because of course there’s no internet inside. That reinforces the weirdness: I start recounting a story I discovered on Twitter and then realised that several of them have been in here since before Twitter was invented(!)
Then this, from a guy who’s clearly not making his debut at Her Majesty’s pleasure: “it [VoV] has taught me to take criticism. We criticise [critique] each other’s writing all the time. It’s not so easy to take that at the beginning, but now I really welcome it – all criticism helps my writing get better.” That’s huge. Intolerance of other people’s views is what lands people in prison in the first place. Mr Justice Secretary, if you’re looking for ways to reduce reoffending – and I hope you are – programmes which teach people to give and take feedback should be high on your list. Plus it’s cheap as chips to run: it takes just two staffers and some printer cartridges.
Hats off, then, to the two ladies who run it. They evidently create a supportive, inspiring and pedagogic environment amongst their tough clientele, and bring in various external people who come here bearing article ideas and writing tips and feedback.
So, to my amazement, I too am inspired. Yet as we leave, there’s a prisoner in the corridor being shouted at, and the myriad keys and doors remind us that our new-found friends are locked away for a reason. I’m glad it was just an afternoon trip: a dark, wet, windy London street has never seemed so glorious.