ONE 3 • Prisons, Cemeteries and Concentration Camps: them & us

Last spring, I began to teach creative writing at Polmont Young Offenders Institution, a prison for young men in Scotland. Society would like to believe prisons are liminal: prisoners go in, spend some time, are rehabilitated, come out reformed.

At the end of my first visit, when I walked out, I left the front door open. My escort-guard smiled and said, “Hey Martin, close the door, it is a prison, remember?”

Polmont Young Offenders Institution Creative Writers Reflect on the page:

“Today I awoke to a voice commanding me to get up. At first, I thought it was one of the screws [guards], so I got up and quickly realized it wasn’t. I assumed it must be my cell mate, but couldn’t have been because he was sound asleep. I wondered to myself what the hell it could have been. No one at the door. It was only four o’clock in the morning.”


“Top of bunk bed, the floor, the screws, cell mate, the can, TV, table and seat: basically I wake up in here and think, what is the point of life?” —Ian
“I was never a bad person, but mind you never the pride of Britain either… When I was sixteen I did what every teenager does in the country. I had a drink.”


“I am not claiming to be an angel, I was a wild kid growing up. I have a big heart and won’t back down to anyone or anything, but that could be my downfall. My best mate had the same attitude… and now he’s dead.”


“Today has been like most other days: get up, wash, shave, breakfast, etc., except for a documentary film I saw after dinner which made me think… I used to hate everyone and everything, and hurt a lot of people along the way. I thought I was worse-off than anyone, but I’ve come to realise there are a lot of people in worse shape than me—people who need intensive care, attention and the like — and if I can just change myself for the better, and help some who are worse-off than myself: maybe, just maybe I would have done something worthwhile for a change.”



To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.

– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time