I thought I’d share something I wrote a few months after Sammie and I (Paul Chambers) started going to HMP Peterborough each week to give creative writing workshops. By the time I wrote this poem, I’m pleased to say that I had shrugged off my layers of preconception and seen these prisoners for what they are: humans that have, through many different circumstances and reasons, taken wrong turns. Most are suffering from mental health issues and the help just isn’t there.
You see, more often than not, they had been let down by society and their paths had led to places the majority of us are lucky enough not to tread. I used to think they should be afforded no rights, as they were ‘meant to be punished’, but I soon learned that the view held by the forward-thinking prison themselves was right. Rehabilitation is better than just punishment.
They are locked up in there already, many for very long periods of time; and believe me, that is punishment enough for these wives, daughters and mothers. They need to be treated as humans.
We were and are lucky enough to make a difference. It’s something amazing, and long may it continue! I wrote this in the library whilst sat with them…
And so there they sit, our writing group
in squeaking uncomfortable chair
angry voices echo through stuffy air
floating in through barred grimy windows
and down bleached outside corridor.
For now, a quiet bubble holds them
As they surround the papered table
pens in eager fingers, concentration brows
they sit amongst their ghosts and regrets
doing their time, in long enclosed hot days.
The presence of their troubled backgrounds
circumstances, what fate doled out
lurks in corners, behind bookshelves
glowering at the broken souls that life threw
a ball to catch, stained in consequence.
Sectioned off and swiftly sanctioned
away from fluff and stuff of their lives
the things deemed trivial outside
in here are golden cosset comforts.
And so they pay. And pay. And pay.
But these few refuse to bend to that
to be defined by what they were
now they’re bettering themselves
knowledge, words and empowerment.
A new habit, of ritualistic rehabilitation.
Each week we leave, ourselves educated
our preconceptions smashed and mashed
by human beings, real people with problems
addictions, ethics and passions. Despite what
logic would have us think, we know love there.