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On Being a Writer in Residence in a Prison - 2/3

Letters to Myself
by Michael Crowley author of The Man They Couldn't Hang: A Tale of Murder, Mystery and Celebrity. August 2010.

For the most part I began by writing with lads. I used warm ups, exercises, storytelling, memory games, but always by the end of the first session, I asked the lads to commit something to paper. Then I set ‘homework’. I worked with the same prisoners for as long as I was able to and we were making progress. I worked with some lads for three years. Lifers and long sentence lads were the easiest to work with because their behaviour and attitude tended to be better than those for whom prison is a revolving door. They are also less likely to want to write or read about crime.

Both Bea and I were clear that our purpose was to be rehabilitative. To be interested in a prisoner’s writing without any regard to how the process will change his thinking and behaviour seemed to us pointless. That meant discussing and writing about specific crimes in detail; grave crimes: the planning and motivation, the commission of the offence; the aftermath on all concerned; its meaning. It is remarkable how little opportunity or requirement there is upon prisoners to discuss the significance of what they have done, particularly in a young offender institution. Young prisoners’ writing can often be apocryphal and sentimental; homilies about how they’ve learnt their lesson or a string of actions that avoid exploring consequences. Lads may have begun writing in that fashion but the project was to always guide them to more concentrated and original expression. And for them to see that other people’s stories were just as important as theirs.

"That’s all I ever want off people. Their car. I appreciate cars. I understand them. I see the reason why every drop of sweat that has hit the ground during the engineering of a car has done so. I love cars. Everything about them. The way they look, the way they smell, the way they sound, the way they feel, the way they drive, even the way they hurt when they are abused. It’s almost as if they talk to me. I can’t speak their language though, so I take care of them, look after them, drive them the way they like to be driven, wash them when they are dirty and sad, fix them when they are broken and mad. I can understand why people think I’m crazy. They are right. What was I thinking? Cars don’t have feelings; you can’t make a car happy. Most illnesses have a cure. I think the only person who can cure this is me and I’m far from a doctor."

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