BELK: A Ballad of Reading in Gaol (full version of essay published in Scottish Review of Books)

A Ballad of Reading in Gaol

(Full version of Scottish Review of Books Essay.)

By Martin Belk

A young woman hangs back after my writing seminar at the new City of Glasgow College with a question: “What’s it like, ya’ know, in there?” For a second, I’m thrown, forgetting that in the preceding class I’d alluded several times to my prison writing workshops. Before I could respond, huge, heavy tears welled up and fell from her eyes, falling down to her denim jeans. She didn’t say anything more, she didn’t need to – she has a loved one on the ‘inside’. I didn’t quite know what to tell her: a ‘modern place of rehabilitation’, to reassure her, or, a ‘bona-fide prison’, to confirm and confront her worst fears? Neither is entirely true, there are problems in the narrative.

Polmont Young Offenders Institution doesn’t look anything like a typical gaol when you walk in. The sliding doors open automatically, like any office tower. A brand new waiting area is just to the left, with blue-grey carpeting and a few toys for young children to play with. No bars, no barking dogs, no armed guards. The reception is like a Scottish Executive building or the foyer of a Spartan bank. After you clear security, you take the long walk down to the learning centre to the sound of every staff member you meet wishing you a good morning. Sure, locks and doors control movement, but the building remains humane and friendlier than any corporate office I’ve ever worked in.

For over three years, I’ve served as Writer-in-Residence on a voluntary basis in Polmont, and engaged with a large number of young inmates. This work keeps returning me to a question that has never been entirely answered since the modern prison era began. What is the actual purpose of prisons? To punish, rehabilitate, or both? The origins of the question lie in a moment of historical irony. The state-sanctioned ostracism from society of human beings arose at a time when people in Colonial America and Europe began awakening to a notion of freedom. In England, an act of 1575 calling for “the punishment of vagabonds and the relief of the poor” established “houses of correction” in every county. A century later, in 1676, Louis XIV sent an edict prescribing a ‘Hôpital Général’ in every city. The legislations for these exclusions were originally for the mad, then the sick, then: offenders, political enemies, and lower-class undesirables. The result from then, through the revolutions, to present day: an arbitrary liberté, égalité, fraternité. Madness has since become,

among other things, a wide net to cast over habeas corpus.

Medical quarantine makes sense with leprosy. However, a judgement of madness was ambiguous, and proved useful when dealing with citizens who posed difficulties to the state. According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his book Madness And Civilization, “One out of every hundred inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves confined” for varying lengths of time during the seventeenth century. “Absolute power made use of lettres de cachet and arbitrary measures of imprisonment … [extended equally to] the poor, to the unemployed, to prisoners and to the insane. […] As with the libertine…or the ruffian…it is difficult to say [who is] mad, sick, or criminal.”

Polmont’s senior officials have learned from experience: contrary to the theory behind the Hôpital Général, the further you remove people from society and atmosphere of a civil community, the less likely they’ll productively integrate back into one. Officials came to similar conclusions two centuries ago, as Foucault writes, “The evil which men had attempted to exclude by confinement reappeared, to the horror of the public.” While some criminals are hardened beyond hope, and need to be locked away for good, I’m not so sure about the greater portion of humans we leave to languish in prison.

One of the fastest tickets for a long-term ride to the big house is booze. Simply being intoxicated or high can be construed by the authorities as a ‘state of madness’ in and of itself. Technically, we are indeed imprisoning the mad, by our very own definition. Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill has called for a “definite change in the booze and blade culture of Scotland.” I hope that change comes soon. Whether you choose to look at government statistics, the testimony of prison officers, or my experience of working with young inmates, the findings are similar: in approximately 80% of cases, alcohol was a major contributory factor to the offence. Most prisoners I know stood trial, unable to defend themselves, because they had no memory of events due to blackouts. Ironically, the local term for this is ‘Mad w’ it’.

So, if many of our young people are conditioned, expected even, to become criminals, how does law enforcement fit into this picture? While there are plenty of people in law enforcement who work diligently for a safe and just society, there’s something else afoot. Something at the core of our support for our foundering Hôpital Général. In his recent play about the 1989 uprising of the Czech Velvet Revolution, Rock ‘n’ Roll, one of Tom Stoppard’s characters named Jan offers an insight into social systems: “Police love dissidents, like the Inquisition loved heretics. Heretics give meaning to the defenders of the faith.” Perhaps this explains why so many of our Polmont young writers describe their predicaments so matter-of-factly? Do we get what we want?

When I began working with young men at Polmont I first noticed their lack of self-confidence. Peer-pressure shames those with ambition as ‘attention seekers’. One of my students, Calum, reported being put on the street to run with ‘the lads’ at the age of four. Another, Jeffrey, at age 8, was charged with the full-time care of his two younger brothers, aged 5 and 3. Both came from families of alcoholics. What do pre-teen boys do, I asked, when left in the street to fend for themselves? Drink, do drugs, join gangs. “What else were we supposed to do, when that’s all you know?” Calum has repeatedly asked me.

Strathclyde Chief Constable Steve House recently announced that officers on patrol every day would rise from 500 to 2600 in the radical plans to unleash “old-style policing with a hard edge.” Sounds good, but a new rodeo roundup of the mad may not do the trick. after the announcement, I had a conversation with a recently retired policeman who told me, “It works in theory, but in reality, you’ve got people calling the police for everything from legitimate emergencies to complaints about their dirty windows. They tried to put in a call-priority system, but no matter what you do, there simply aren’t enough officers.”

Like Calum and Jeffrey, many inmates report long histories of alcohol, drugs, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse. Some have legitimate mental health illnesses, and need proper diagnosis and

treatment. Many experienced a school system that is coercive and labelled them as troublemakers from a young age. Most report negative social conditioning (intentional or not) on the part of families, carers, teachers. “My family and people in my neighbourhood always said that I’d end up in gaol” Jeffrey told me. “The last time I saw my father was after I’d been arrested, we crossed paths in handcuffs. ‘Hi Dad, what you in for?'” reported another boy, forcing out a shy laugh.

Then there are the families, dramatically depicted as losers and victims of crime – perfect for prime time ratings and newspaper sales – or, as absent thugs who are at the root of all that is evil in young criminals. Perhaps they’re just playing along too, in this game of madness? The fact is that abusers were themselves abused. The cycle repeats itself.

In his landmark social study, The Closing of the American Mind, American scholar Allan Bloom sheds some light on the ailing modern family, and possibly some of the reasons young male offenders outnumber females 14 to 1. In the context of the conventional notion of traditional families, Bloom observes the unwillingness of “Women to make unconditional and perpetual commitments on unequal terms [with men], and no matter what they hope, nothing can effectively make most men share … child-rearing.” My experience with incarcerated young men has taught me that you cannot force men to care and take membership in a family unit as father or son; nor can you force a young man to want to care about a naive community that pretends to be innocently shocked anew by every single crime, via a daily fix of gossip columns – consumers consumed by consuming. “People can continue to live while related to [their] beloved; [but] they cannot continue to be related to a living beloved who no longer loves or wishes to be loved,” Bloom explains, highlighting what I consider a critical component of today’s identity crisis of young men in the US and UK.

Rigid business approaches to learning also present a problem, parcelling out a system of ‘bums on seats’ and bottom-line rationales. The results are disastrous, alienating good teachers and students alike, and the effect on the prisoners is devastating, resulting in a greater aversion to learning. If we’re looking to ensure released offenders return to gaol, this is a good way of going about it.

The encouraging news is that I have not met or worked with one official at the Scottish Prison Service who does not want positive change. Let’s face it: ‘body-farming’ is depressing. Farms where nothing grows. Nothing changes. Of course, offences must be punished. Sentences must be served. But then what? If we follow the US model, the farms only get bigger, and the result is painfully similar to what Musquinet de la Pagne observed in Paris in 1790, “These wards are a dreadful place where all crimes together ferment and spread around them … a contagious atmosphere.”

My wish is for all young people today to reclaim their own narrative, whether locked in gaol or tied to an iPod. If they don’t, they will be victims of Thomas Mann’s insight: “Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves context – it is silence which isolates.” Young people in custody can be vague about why they’re there, and so internalise another narrative, which is not autochthonous but imposed by the authorities and sections of the press, in an attempt to ‘explain’ their behaviour. Misguided school mandates declare ‘everyone’s a winner.’ The goal: to catch the kids that fall through the cracks; those left behind as hands-on teaching and apprenticeships were traded for standardized tests.

Only three of my hundred or so prison writers have claimed ‘I didn’t do it’. And one actually didn’t; he was proven innocent after serving three years. So, if any of them write down even one authentic line about themselves, I’ve done my job. One honest statement in a notebook they take with them after they leave gaol could mean the difference between a positive future and a career in criminality.

Students start exactly where they are with regards to their vocabulary and language. We don’t ‘dumb down’, we do not judge. We write about anger and pain, guilt and amends, forging a bond with the outside world. Some have all but cried when we’ve studied Samuel Beckett, and learned that creative failure is an option, as is the resolve to “fail better”. We use Romeo and Juliet, in the footsteps of my mentor John Calder did in Easterhouse in 1969 with gang members, to deal with

violence and knife crime. On racism, we read James Baldwin and Malcolm X; there may be parallels between today’s ‘ned’ and yesterday’s ‘nigger’.

If facilitated correctly, the results are astonishing, but they don’t fit on bubble-answer cards. My approach is a hybrid of ‘Theatre-in-Education’, and personal essay. ‘T-I-E’ takes contemporary topics and develops dramatic narratives to be explored and performed, and has proven effective in dealing with drug abuse, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, bullying and spousal abuse. My approach to personal essay develops the solitary act of writing within a group setting, and combined with T-I-E opens a natural path to other genres in writing. After three years, we’ve been given permission to match written evaluations with proper college credits. Plenty of other dedicated agents, charities and arts organizations are engaged in new, equally valid work. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I am certainly not alone, nor the first in this educational reform effort. Dozens of dedicated agents, agencies, charities and arts organizations share a common goal. The challenge is in effective delivery of services to the kids that fall through the cracks; those ones left in the dust as the vocational training, apprenticeships and hands-on training, were traded for standardized tests and the outright lie that ‘everyone’s a winner.’ Once I was one of those kids, but I got lucky.

What about the victims? For some, writing classes invite the suspicion, prison is cushy; to certain minds, rehabilitation itself is disrespectful to those hurt by the inmates. My answer: do everything in our power to honour victims by preventing more. Couple punishment with rehabilitation – finally, tangibly, and lift society up to a new standard. Place principles above personalities on all fronts, and put accessible education and excellence ahead of entertainment and excess.

In his new book, Wind from the East French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton, 2010). Richard Wolin writes about how Foucault witnessed detained militant students who demanded status as political prisoners, in order to receive special privileges. “Was not the lot of all prisoners similarly unjust?” Foucault also joined Enquête-Intolérable, a movement dedicated to documenting the plight of people in French Prisons in 1970. According to Wolin, their findings are pertinent in relation to class bias “[…]80 percent of the bourgeois prisoners benefited from furloughs, only 32 percent of working-class inmates enjoyed such privileges.” Wolin cites trends held in other areas as well: early release – bourgeois 90%, working class 33%. Overall the working class was more closely monitored, more readily imprisoned, and once incarcerated, it was more difficult for them to leave.

When I recently visited Barlinnie prison, the library was empty, to the dismay of the officer in charge. As ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ came on the radio, I began to make notes about how to keep our young people from re-entering prison once they’ve left:

1. Prisoners need to be kept as involved, informed and engaged with society as possible. The further they are removed, the more likely they will re-offend.

2. Make prison tough through action. No TV in the daytime. Mandatory activities – education, sport, work. Work should encourage self-sufficiency.

3. End the dismal failure of placing young offenders directly back into the communities they came from. Prison officials, teachers and support workers agree this is the number one ingredient in a high rate of re-offending. Same gangs, same arguments, grudges, fights and trouble – they need a clean start. Make relocation a privilege, not a right.

4. Offer tax breaks and other incentives to businesses that employ prisoners after release. Even the most menial job can make a world of difference.

5. Ban videos depicting children in the act of committing crimes from social networking sites. Enforce the ban as strongly as that on child pornography.

6. Propose a new national service policy – military, forestry, nursing older people or helping the poor. It’s time to give back.

On 23 November 2010 bidding will close on the new learning contract for prisons in Scotland. Write to your MSP. Mark my words and the advice of those on the front lines: you do not want gaols to go private. Private gaols are gaols for profiteers and will ensure that nothing changes. Penny wise, pound foolish. The choice is clear: suffer more crime by alienating criminals in private bureaucracies or seize the opportunity to write a new story.

A sleection from this essay appeared in the November 2010 Scottish Review of Books.