5 things teaching creative writing in prisons taught me

Clare Fisher has spent years hosting creative writing workshops for women in prison. Being exposed to the social exclusion they face, it inspired her to write her first book, All The Good Things

Teaching creative writing in prisons

Words can also free a person; the women knew this

3. Words matter

Words can trap a person, and many of the women knew this: 'when you're in here, you become a number. But we're more than just a number.' 'We're seen as bad people, but we're not. We've just made mistakes.' Words can also free a person; the women knew this, too. Many have taken up reading and writing in the course of their sentences. It can pass the time; it can also be a lifeline. When you are so physically limited, the page is a place where you can exert power. Beth’s relationship to the written word changes her relationship to herself and with other people; she makes an important friend through helping her to write letters to her son.

4. Women need more support

Prison can be a place of respite; from domestic abuse, from poverty, from abusive pasts. For many women I met, it was the first time they’d felt safe, the first time they’d been able to open up about some of the difficulties they’d encountered or got any proper mental health support or educational opportunities. It was great to see their transformations and how much they supported one another, yet tragic they did not get the help when they needed it — and which might very well have prevented them going to prison in the first place. Some talked about their former selves or lives almost as if they were different people and it was this that I wanted to explore through Beth's character: how so much of what we assume we are is not static but dependent upon the situations we find ourselves in. For Beth, as for many of the women I met, being in prison can bring opportunities as well as difficulties. 

5. Creativity builds confidence

One of the joys of teaching — whatever it is you’re teaching and wherever it is you’re doing it — is watching your students gain confidence. The transformation was particularly steep amongst some of the women I’ve worked with in prison. I had one student who was too embarrassed to speak in the first session, let alone write anything; another who felt her grasp of English wasn’t good enough for her to take part. But with time and encouragement, not only from me but, crucially, from the more experienced writers in the group, they began to try. By the last session, some of the shyest students were volunteering to read out their work. In daring to write a list of good things about herself, Beth dares to challenge the labels —  bad prison, bad mother, prisoner - that have been stuck to her. This changes how she sees herself and how she behaves with the other women; she begins to reach out and make the connections that will be essential to her survival. 

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