Stories and Poetry from Behind the Walls

A few of the young men were boisterous, laughing, loud. Others were quiet. They were black, Asian, and white. Yet in one full day—and in the following half day—they all proved to be great writers, raising hard but brave issues, and risking some of their emotions and even grief in writing workshops I conducted at Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institution/Portland. As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, HMYOI is located on an island on the southern coast of England near Weymouth. It’s a prison for young men ages 18 to 21. An adult facility called The Verne is located on the same island—both of the prisons had old stone walls with razor wire. They held around 500 prisoners each. On Monday and Tuesday, July 12 and 13, my host Josephine Metcalf and I were allowed behind the heavily secured walls. We had to be there at 8 in the morning. A tour of the facilities proved that this institution is at the cutting edge of rehabilitation, vocational training, and life skills development. Prisoners had horses, chickens, and goats to take care of as well as carpentry and electronics repair shops. There was a unique rail yard training program (complete with several yards of real train rails) and a radio station. And they even had a state-of-the-art barbershop training space. I also admired their well-stocked library—this is very important in such institutions. I was most pleased and impressed. When we finally settled into the classroom for the writing workshops, we had up to ten young men, all volunteers, who gave up gym, other classes and projects to take part in this special event. We also showed clips of a new documentary on the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, Crips co-founder and later a redeemed writer and activist. And I read poetry, talked about writing and life, and had these young men doing writing exercises that proved one important thing—they all had powerful stories, ideas, and language about their lives and the world around them. Barbara Becnel, who had accompanied us through much of my Manchester and London events, created the Tookie Williams documentary. Unfortunately, Barbara and Joanne had to return to the United States and couldn’t join us in Portland. The film features eulogies for Tookie after his wrongful execution in San Quentin’s Death Row in 2005. The speakers included Snoop Dogg, Minister Louis Farrakan, Tony Robbins, Rev. Jesse Jackson, his lawyer, and closest friends. In the two days, we showed various parts of this film, helping spark important dialogue about crime and justice. I found the workshop participants to be aware, insightful, generous. Neil Coad of Actions 4 Employment, and a teacher at the facility, took us around and stood with us during the writing workshops. He gave us the best rundown on the facility and their programs. He also picked us up and took us back to the train station and every morning drove us to the prison. I want to thank Neil for the time and effort he took to make our stay wonderful, not only in the classroom, but even afterwards when we visited more of the Portland island, including the lighthouse at the edge of the English Channel (on a clear day, Neil said, one could see the French Normandy Coast). I also want to thank Eryl Doust, Head of Re-Offending at HMYOI-Portland. She jumped at the chance to have me come and conduct writing workshops with prisoners and even visited us during one of the writing sessions with the leading governor of the prison. Ms. Doust also arranged for Josephine and I to stay at a clean and well-run bed & breakfast in Portland called Leam House. The owners are Jane and Steve, who were attentive and gracious. I recommend this place for anyone who plans to visit the Weymouth area. We left Portland and Weymouth on Tuesday evening, getting on a three-hour train ride to London, had dinner near the Waterloo Station (with Josephine’s “mum,” a nice and engaging person), then grabbed a taxi to the Euston train station. Another two hours later, we were in Manchester. Despite an eight-hour delay of the plane from Manchester to Philadelphia, forcing me to stay at a hotel in Philly before getting on an early flight to Los Angeles, I have no complaints. This was an amazing trip. I’ll give proper thanks to everyone involved in my next blogpost, along with deeper observations of this important trip. I must mention, however, the wonderful walk and tour I had in the Peckham and Elephant & Castle working class neighborhoods last Friday with my friend Garth. Garth, the writer and world traveler, lives in working class housing in Peckham. I learned much about public housing in England, changing demographics, and other stories of these areas. Peckham has a large Afro Caribbean community (with other nationalities) and Elephant & Castle, another mixed neighborhood, was also the community with more Latinos than any other in London (mostly Colombians, but also from other parts of Latin America). c/s

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