Tales told within walls

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Elaine Williams meets prisoners catching up on childhood

All rabbits are good but from time to time they say or do things that are bad. But they are good at heart. In the prison it's hoped they will realise their naughtiness and mend their ways."

Tony Martin, serving a 12-year sentence at Stocken, a medium-security prison north of Peterborough, had chosen to end The Forbidden Forest, his story about Brian the rabbit, with some tricky explanation. "'Am I a very bad rabbit?' Brian asked. 'Of course not,' the elder answered. 'But you did do a bad thing.'" With the help of Michaela Morgan, the children's author who has been working as writer-in-residence at the prison, Tony has written a morality tale for his daughter and all children who visit Stocken. His book, which he desk-top-published in his literacy and information technology classes, will join the collection Michaela has been building up at the prison's visitor centre. "Very few children's books deal with the topic of imprisonment, " Michaela said. "Putting it in the centre of the story gave Tony a concrete aim and is very good for the children as well."

Tony turned to writing to provide a release from the frustration of prison life as well as a medium for communicating with his own children. He said: "My children believe that everybody in prison is poisonous and evil. I wanted to tell them that people also go to prison because they make mistakes."

Encouraging prisoners to write children's stories for the new visitor centre was part of a project set up by Diane Bagur, Stocken's principal education officer for basic skills. Her aim was to involve them in the national Read and Write Together campaign for parents and children, started last year by the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit.

Michaela has also read stories to children who visit the prison - they like her own picture book, The Monster is Coming - talked to prisoners about children's literature and lobbied publishers to donate books.

Annie Dalton, another children's author and the writer-in-residence at Wellingborough, another category C prison in Northamptonshire, has also built up a collection from publishers. She remembers the day when many of the books arrived. "It was like Christmas. I got some of the inmates to help me open them. I could see them just drinking up the colour and magic of those lovely new books. There they were getting involved in the stories, lifting up the flaps. Most of them had never had this opportunity.

"Children's stories deal with the basic threads of life. So many avenues, so many human relationships are denied in prison. Exploring children's literature is one way of opening them up again."

Children whose parents are in prison often have to make long and difficult journeys on visiting days. Michaela felt some well-displayed, easily accessible books would be a welcome diversion. She added: "Prisoners can lose contact with their children very easily. Writing for them, reading with them, is a way of sharing, of keeping up contact."

Many inmates missed out on reading in their childhood and illiteracy rates are high. In turn, their children are more likely to be underexposed to books. The visitors' library is a step towards breaking this cycle. "When Michaela brought in the books, the prisoners just flew to them," said Diane Bagur.

During the run-up to the Read and Write Together work, prison staff noticed Michaela reading to a rapt audience of men, many of them murderers, robbers and rapists serving long sentences. "I was reading Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. I do believe that good children's literature speaks to a deep level in our consciousness. A lot of prisoners have a void where their own childhood should be."

Over the past year Michaela has worked one-to-one with about 70 prisoners at Stocken who are writing autobiography and poetry as well as stories for children.

Like Tony Martin, Travis Williams has created a children's story about a forest, The Mystery of the Leafling Forest. A single parent, Travis is serving an eight-year sentence while his mother looks after his daughter. He said: "I am here because of what I did. I deserved it. I was brought up hard. When you grow up you tend to forget the fantasies you have as a child. I wanted to open up a children's world to see what was there. I wanted to give my own daughter something to think about."

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