One Of The Most Moving Experiences Of My Life

Imagine the scene – I’m sitting in a purpose-built cabin within Coldingley Prison, watching a group of once highly dangerous men – ex-gangsters, ex-drug-dealers, ex-murderers – put on a performance detailing their lives pre-prison and their experiences inside. The audience, me apart, are teachers and youth offending officers who work with youngsters at risk of landing up in gaol themselves. KEEPOUT is unique in that it’s run within prison and by serving prisoners, and thus makes a far deeper impression on young offenders than would a theoretical lecture delivered by those with no direct experience of custody. Once they hear from the horse’s mouth what it actually means to lose one’s liberty and be subject to a straitjacket of rules and regulations, those young tearaways who might have recklessly assumed that “prison aint that bad” are visibly shaken and often prompted to change their behaviour.

I’d read about the scheme in advance and knew the inmates were trained in a range of performance skills, yet I was totally unprepared for their sheer talent, articulacy and professionalism. Not one of them had ever set foot in a theatre, let alone attended Drama School, but they acted with truly impressive exuberance, energy and even humour, despite the seriousness of the mission. They divided the roles between them, switching from bolshie inmate refusing to be strip-searched to stern prison-officer issuing threats and cautions, or from vulnerable teenager, ruthlessly bullied at school, to his gangster “protector”, teaching him to be “cool” and “tough” – through crime.

Not only did I learn a lot, I was struck by the men’s courage in explaining, post-performance, how and why they’d been convicted. These personal testimonies were unsparing in their honesty, and notable in their refusal to make excuses for themselves, however adverse their circumstances. Some had been expelled from school, grown up in poverty on sink-estates, with no father, no hope, and inadequate or absent mothers. The only people they saw with flash cars or fashionable trainers were members of local gangs, so, prompted by envy, or a desire for a substitute family, they were gradually lured into this dangerous circle. These “elder brothers”, though, were the worst possible influence, persuading their new recruits to carry guns or knives, break into shops or cars, and get involved in drug-dealing, which often resulted in a gaol-sentence. It would be natural for the youngsters to blame the gang-members for their imprisonment – or to blame their parents, or society – but an essential part of KEEPOUT’s mission is to teach its participants to take responsibility for their own wrong-doing and, instead of seeing themselves as victims, they’re trained to recognise the people they have murdered, wounded, robbed or traumatized. According to some in the team, this could sometimes be a slow and difficult process. One inmate said, “No one gave a shit about me, so I didn’t give a shit about no one else”, but, in the course of the training, he moved from a position of callous irresponsibly to a genuine desire to give something back to society. “If I could turn around just one youngster’s life, that would make everything worthwhile.”

Later, when the audience had left, the KEEPOUT staff let me stay and talk to the men in a more informal setting. Several of them told me that they’d begun the course raw, shy, and terrified of acting or even of speaking in public, so their transformation into accomplished thespians was all the  more striking. Some were clearly passionate about their change of heart, or had already changed their lives; two doing further training in Leadership Skills and Youth-Work; one signing up for an Open University degree. By the end of the day, I was so moved by their commitment, I found myself in tears. Their reaction was immediate: one guy rushed to fetch me a box of Kleenex, another came over to sit beside me, while a third made me the best cup of tea I’ve had in years. “Prisoners aren’t all monsters, you know,” he told me. Dead right!

However, many of the team still had long sentences to serve. Despite their freedom to change and grow, no way are they free to walk out of gaol and put those changes into practical effect. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until I’d finished The Tender Murderer that I realized how many different aspects of freedom the novel explores, not just the obvious one of actual confinement in gaol.

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