The corridor outside abruptly teems with men, visible through the internal windows. (There are always windows to keep an eye on us inside.) One or two break out of the turbulence and come into the room: slouching, ambling, occasionally sauntering. Some wear prison-issue tracksuits in several states of decrepitude; others are dapper in their own clothes, often seriously labelly.
They settle around the tables, arranged so that each man is visible to the rest and they banter – familiar, sometimes barbed prison chat – as they wait for the others to arrive. They know why they’re here – they have elected to be here – but when the rubric is explained, they’re daunted. In the space of four half-day workshops, they are to write an original story for their kids, something a professional writer might find challenging.
They have two things in common, these eight men: they’re all in prison and all are fathers – beyond that, this is uncharted territory. They are to create, from a standing start, a story that no one else could write, then illustrate it, record it, compose music for it and show it at the family day when the children come in for a party.
These are men who barely remember being read to as children, so have no idea how to read to their own. No idea of the accessories to the experience – the physical contact, the silly voices, the playfulness – no idea of how a story works, its elements, its meaning, its arc. Some have literacy difficulties and all have difficulty believing they can do this.
They’re not disrespectful, but carry on joshing each other and tittle-tattling until I pick up a book. I bring stories I read to my children, now to my grandchildren, and I lift it up so they can see the pictures.
I put on daft voices and hoot and laugh and I’m suddenly with a bunch of four-year-olds sitting on a mat, rapt. Something as ordinary as toast to the rest of us is an exotic dish to these men and when they’re asked in turn to read to the others, they demur and blush and occasionally refuse.
We explore how it feels to be a father, what it felt like being there when their babies were born or – far too often – not being there at all. What it feels like encountering their children as babble down a phone or in precious snatched time on a visit; watching them grow up in glimpses, sometimes losing them altogether. They recall how it was for them growing up, often with addicted or absentminded mothers, abusive fathers or sometimes with no father at all. Sometimes with no parents at all – between 25% and 50% of the prison population were brought up in care – so they lack the internal structures that make a person feel substantial.
Here they are, inventing vegetarian lions, not-so-scary tickle-me zombies and grumpy old sturgeons
It hardly needs to be said (but I’ll say it anyway) that these men often come from chaotic backgrounds, have become chaotic themselves and consequently can only speak the language of destruction, violence and damage. But here they are, these butch and burly men, struggling to learn a different language. Here they are, speaking of tender things with other struggling men, with brutish prison life rollicking along outside. Here they are, talking of holding their dead baby in their arms, feeling helpless in the face of a child’s disability, feeling so enfeebled by their disjointed family experience that they’re sure they’ve mucked up their own.
Here each one is, working with another man, plaiting his ideas into a literary pattern. Here they are, inventing vegetarian lions, not-so-scary tickle-me zombies, grumpy old sturgeons, heroic Hoovers and fairies. (There are always, always, fairies.) A prison officer, slightly grizzled by his years in the service, said he couldn’t believe these were the same men he met on the wing. I pointed to a pair who were talking animatedly at the table. “Look,” I said, “those two – they’re discussing how sparkly to make their pink fairy.”
And they write about fathers, of course. Heroic dads pop up here and there, rescuing the characters from beastly baddies, offering homilies about how best to behave. One father was a soldier forever away saving the world, not a man serving time in a jail, and because he returned, his two little girls won a dancing competition and the family reunited over cake. They write about themselves, too – their characters are frequently friendless outsiders who, by the end, have found mates and acceptance. One story featured a dinosaur covered in dog fur, isolated on top of a mountain. He meets a little boy much bullied for his pebbly glasses and buck teeth and they bond over a runaway ferret. The ultimate message, as the two of them make friends, is that it’s OK to be different, something one of the writers wanted to tell his three-year-old who had just been diagnosed with autism.
This is Inside Stories, one of many different projects set up by an inspirational charity, Create, which believes that discovering a creative voice can be transformative. The projects have won 60 Koestler awards in the nine years they’ve been running, both for individual attainment and for the group. This isn’t some namby-pamby, wussy do-gooder stuff – it’s based on Ministry of Justice research that shows that if fathers stay in touch with their children while they’re inside, the recidivism rate drops by 39%. This works.
And at the end of the project, each man has a concrete object: the book, with the participants telling their tales on a CD in the back and a double-page spread for each pair. It’s the kind of book you’d buy for your children, professionally printed with high production values on heavy-duty paper, not some photocopied flimsy that will tear.
It honours the heavy-duty work that’s gone into its making and its heft reflects the new emotional weight each man now carries. Every participant has two – one for their children and one for themselves – so when the children open the book, or hear their dad’s voice, or read it themselves, they’ll know that he was thinking of them while he was banged up in prison. And that’s priceless.
One man said: “When we read to our kids, it’s going to be great. I think I’ll shed a tear.” The backs of my eyes prick, too, when the men talk about what this has meant to them. Instead of destroying things, they’ve created something new that didn’t exist until they made it. Instead of inarticulate rage, they’ve been able to articulate love and this book is solid evidence.
Carol Topolski’s most recent novel is Do No Harm