Before RISE (Reading In Secure Environments) I had been invited into two other prisons as a creative practitioner. The first was Armley, a category B men’s prison in Leeds, where I was invited to put on three of my plays in short succession in the multi-faith chapel in 2000/2001. The other prison was Wakefield, a category A men’s prison, that took me so long to get into, that by the time I had, the Open University student I was supposed to be tutoring had finished his course.
I was in Durham for the Durham Book Festival on the Sunday. I arrived at the Town Hall (where I was performing with two other writers: Stephen May and Annabel Pitcher) an hour early, and went straight to the green room. There I sat with Jack Straw and Gavin Essler, waiting for the event to start. Gavin had just finished his event and Jack was about to go on. We talked about the scantily clad women of Durham’s nightlife. Jack Straw said, they were all ‘pelmets and boob tubes’.
The audience at the town hall were attentive, asking a good selection of questions, and the event was a lot of fun. But the highlight of my Durham visit was on Monday morning when I was invited into Low Newton, a women’s prison, just a few miles from my hotel. I read extracts from King Crow and answered questions from the women for two and a half hours. They were great company and asked some of the most insightful and interesting questions about the book that I’ve ever come across. What was fascinating was how much ‘freer’ they were in their approach to the book than the traditional book festival audience at the town hall the day before.
I didn’t have any expectations beforehand, I always find it best to approach with an open mind, although I will admit to feeling a little anxious. I’d woke that morning from a strange dream, in which I was pulling hair from my mother’s back, while on the phone to my dead grandmother, telling her that I was pulling hair from her daughter’s back. Not the most obvious anxiety dream, it has to be said, but certainly a variety of anxiety dream nevertheless. I recounted this to Charlie, the affable coordinator of the RISE. He advised me not start my talk with this anecdote.
Not all of the women had read the book. There were 30 women in the group and 10 copies of the book. Some had finished it, some were still reading it, and some were about to start reading it. The book, if you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean, is very vulnerable to spoilers. I was impressed by how the women policed each other and were able to ask questions in a coded way that didn’t give the ending away to those who hadn’t reached it. I’ve done many events with groups comprised of those who have and haven’t read the book before, but never come across a group who were able to negotiate this with such skill.
Some of the women were illiterate and were being read to. There is a strong correlation between illiteracy and criminality. I have no idea what crimes the women have committed, nor do I want to know. The advantage of meeting them ignorant of this knowledge is that you see them for who they are not for what they have done. The RISE scheme is, in my mind, a wholly worthwhile endeavour. Reading is the key to so many ways of escaping the bad cards life sometimes deals people. It is also an expedient way of escaping the confines of your world. To imagine is to create. If you can imagine another world, you can imagine your way out of your own world. For the women of Low Newton, they have two worlds to escape: the world of incarceration and the world that waits for them outside if they go back to where they were before their sentence. The next step is harder, but easier once you’ve made this first step.