Kenny MacAskill, Orwell, arts funding and some fresh angles of an old question.
“Poverty is what I’m writing about.” -G.O. —
When George Orwell voluntarily submitted himself to a life on the low, he discovered two distinct stories in two major cities: Paris and London. In the former, while struggling for day
Down & Out between Edinburgh and Glasgow:
Boys Behind Bars Breaking Silence
to day survival through his job in the bowels of the Hotel X. as a plongeur – the very lowest job to be had, he actually found a life with apportioned meals, responsibilities and, albeit entrenched in hierarchies, a place and camaraderie among his fellows. In London, by contrast, he found an indifferent culture, little or no work, few or no friends, and a government which preferred to spend money to move the homeless from place to place under strict rules, with no opportunity to change their circumstances, beholden to a bureaucracy that did not care.
After almost three years as Writer-in-Residence at Polmont Young Offenders Institution, I see the same clashes of cultures — history repeating itself — just as alive and well within the prison walls as they were in the cities of Orwell’s discoveries. Almost 700 young men, many intelligent, talented and articulate, come from some of the worst environments in the Western World. I have mountains of written stories documenting neglect, hunger, sexual abuse, drug abuse, rampant knife gangs and one Scottish culp: alcoholism.
Government sources tell us that men in the West of Scotland have an average life expectancy of 54 years, and that 39% of children in urban Scotland live further below the poverty line than Palestinian children on the West Bank. The statistics are staggering, getting worse and, I suspect, a mirror image of their contemporaries in the USA.
So, it is no surprise that like Orwell, many are relieved to find themselves in a structured, secure environment with proper food to eat, and access to resources and health care.
On 9 February 2010, MSP Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill was a key speaker at a special conference at Polmont YOI to which I was invited along with dozens of prison service officials and most significantly, practitioners with decades of combined experience in working to rehabilitate what some would consider Scotland’s lowest young men. In his speech, Mr MacAskill declared that “the culture of Scotland must change” and then went on to address a taboo subject: a culture of “booze and blades”. During his talk, MacAskill referred to a Scotland that once exported things like The Enlightenement, and competed valiantly for international football titles, instead of using the excuse of a defeatist mentality to justify going to a pub to get drunk before the game even begins.
Prison Governor Derek McGill followed MacAskill, and introduced three young men who’d agreed to brave the scrutiny of the audience, including two rows of fellow inmates, to tell their stories of how they arrived in gaol. A member of my writing workshops was one of them.
Two other young men followed, underscoring MacAskill’s points, while the message of the need for cultural change resonated throughout the room, and continued in discussion groups. While MacAskill and others clearly identified the distinct connection between alcohol abuse and crime, all stopped short of discussing abstinence in favor of the idea of ‘managed drinking’, or ‘drinking less’.
I get angry easily and I can control it most of the time or subdue it till’ I am able to take it out on my wall by hurting myself punching the wall or sometimes I will laugh it off so I can try to tell myself not to make a big deal of it, my anger is the most interesting thing I try to understand because most of my emotions develop into anger, jealousy, sorrow, happiness, frustration, but I think maybe it’s me beating myself up too much or feeling sorry for myself , being trapped in a box which I am forced to call home for the next nine years doesn’t help but again that is my fault.
—J Marshall Jr (excerpt)
Although the message “once I start, I just can’t stop” is loud and clear, the culture will have to change in its own time, and based on my experience working in the gaol, this is a giant step in a positive direction. What concerns me is that such momentum could easily be derailed by tabloids and funding politics.
Very recently, an enormous grant of hundreds of thousands of pounds was appropriated to fund, document and study new creative programmes in prisons. This, without the inclusion of many of the agents, agencies, educators and professionals who’ve been providing and documenting creative programmes in prison for years and years – and further, without regard for the plethora of documentation that already exists, developed over the past hundred years in the UK, America and Europe.
Such moves smack of the US Congress, which is probably the largest consumer of paper studies lining the landfills. MacAskill called for a ‘change in culture’ not ‘cowboy culturists’ — which consumerist capilitalism cannot fix:
When I look in the mirror, I see a lonely face. I see a face that looks older than it is.When I look in the mirror I see eyes that don’t like what they see and want to look elsewhere. I see a face that is far too hairy. I see a face that is permanently tired.A face that has spots and ought to be treated better. I see a face of regret, disappointment, hope, emotionlessness, locked away anger, unhappiness, a mask, boredom, ambition and a mind like no other. I see a face I do not want and should not belong to me. I see the face of someone who wants to be friends with everyone and does not want people to dislike him. I see a face that wants to be happy and wants to be able to talk to anyone anywhere anytime but does not know how to. I see the face of someone that wants to be part of something special. The face of a person that has never felt like he has been loved or felt as if he has loved anyone because he does not know what love is. I see ears that stick out too far and should be able to hear things no one else can hear. My eyes look like they need at least a year’s rest. I see a face of a person that wants a reason for living. My face is the face of a person that wants to help people but only if they deserve help. I see the face of a lazy person that likes to learn new things. I see the face of a man that occasionally behaves like a child. I see the face of someone that wants to be remembered but does not think he will be. He believes this because all the people that he thinks care about him are older than him and as a result of this he believes they’ll all die before him and he’ll be the last one alive plus some of the people who say they care about him might turn out not to care about him. I see a face that does not trust anyone, and those he does trust he does not trust them fully.
— Gavin Mitchell (excerpt)
Recently, I took a part-time lecturing post at a local college with two classes. One class, in what is reputedly one of the worst areas in Glasgow, has chosen to be there — a homeless young man walks miles each morning to attend. In contrast, the other class, in the city centre, is pretty much a collection of lost souls who have been forced to attend or else lose their government money — a cacophony of neglected and undernourished minds, half coming to class intoxicated, unable to concentrate on much of anything except a video game and a mobile phone. There are no real expectations for good behavior or educational achievement, without good role models in their lives — more potential customers for the prison.
The good news is the desire to change exists; I find it every time I walk in the Polmont gaol among the SPS staff and most important, many of the young men. But whether government official or government subject — beyond desire, change requires a commitment to eliminate all forms of poverty: economic, education and spiritual. As for our writing workshops, it appears we’re waiting for the outside to catch up with us on the inside.
The end seems near, but maybe it’s a blessing in disguise – from the man above who has watched it all fall apart with war, poverty, and illness — lambs ready for the slaughter. Move pencil move! Write me a new universe.
— Ken Kensington (excerpt)