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Penned Up at HMP Downview

Penned Up at HMP Downview



Written as an address to himself, in this blog David Kendall reflects on how he measures the success of a two week arts and literature festival at HMP Downview.

Penned Up is created with and for those in prison. Its two directors, Mark Hewitt and David Kendall, work with each prison to form a committee of interested prisoners; ideas are spoken, letters are written, venues are chosen, and a programme evolves. Penned Up has already run in HMP Lewes and HMP Erlestoke – HMP Downview hosted the first Penned Up in the women’s estate.

Festival programme (click images to enlarge)


 

You love the drums. A committee idea that you wish had been yours. This is the perfect way to start Penned Up. Sunshine on the Astroturf and 70 women watching the all-male samba band. The beats are loud enough to make your heart jump. Loud enough to push all thought away, and that must be a good thing in here – to just enjoy the music, the smiles, the laughs, and dancing from the brave. In your enjoyment, even here in the centre of the prison, you are still on the outside.

You mark the success of the event not only by the way it uplifts you, but that you can also see a similar response from the women, and even the officers, around you.

Penned Up is 23 events crammed into two weeks. And in each event you look for the responses of those locked up, those who can’t leave when they want, or when their task is complete. You watch dancing, laughter, hesitant smiles, faces crowding around the fences, and you think of that beautiful heartbeat thud-thudding its way through the walls, down the wings, across the car park, maybe even reaching the men in the neighbouring prison. Perhaps those men will lift their heads and wonder what the women are up to.

You watch. Sometimes you are needed to smooth something, help with an introduction, and make decisions over changes in venues but largely the committee run the festival. This is how it is supposed to be – you can step back a little and allow others to have agency and purpose.

You can enjoy the events, when Alex Wheatle gets the laughs, when Shaun Attwood brings the house down with his life stories. It’s the questions the audiences ask, and they ask plenty, that reveal the effect the speakers have on them.

When did you get clean?”

“How did you write your book?”

“Did you ever see that teacher again?”

“How can I start my own business?”

The quiet gravity of Stephen Smith, author of Addict. The amazing oratory of Mandy Ogunmokum (another committee suggestion that was absolutely perfect). Many of the speakers have been in cells themselves. They respond to those still inside without judgement, and with a warmth that means as much as their writing and life stories. You watch the door open and close a dozen times as news of the most incendiary events vibrates down the education corridor, bringing in health and beauty, officers, teachers. You watch the officers nod their heads too. The speakers talk of lives interrupted, wrecked and restored, and we can all empathise, find ourselves. You listen to the disagreements. All of this you call success.

He was amazing.”

“He was an arrogant young man.”

You watch the tears at the end of the festival. You hear the excitement for George the Poet: “He was on the telly last night. I saw him.” You feel the electric in the room because he connects, uses the words that make people feel he speaks for them.

You watch the laughter at the creative writing session on favourite clothes. “I’ve never heard so much laughter in a prison before,” said one guest. Another speaker said after their event: “I’ve done so many events. I think this was the one I was most nervous about.”

A prisoner commented: “He’s just a normal guy. So humble. I’m going to keep writing. It makes you realise that prison doesn’t have to be the end. Doesn’t have to define you. There is life after. These people show us that.”

And that too is success.

You see the excitement when someone demands you read the piece she created in the Fury workshop and has copied out neatly over the lunch break.

This place drags you down. Brings you to rock bottom – this lifted us up.”

“It was something different. It’s against all the repetition. Prison is just repetition. It was nice to learn new things.”

“David, I think you should be a prison officer.” You wonder if that is success. The speaker certainly intended it that way.

This [Penned Up] has given us hope.”

“There’s a real buzz. Everyone’s interested. They’re all asking how we can beat the first week because the first week was so amazing.”

Prison weighs heavy. Restrictions, rules (however necessary), they all crowd your head. The events allow a little freedom, a space to think, a place to develop the version of yourself you feel you need to be. You never stop wondering what happens after each event. What do people talk about on the wings? Does it change the conversations?

On that first day you escort the samba band back out to the gate. One of band turns to you,

I wanted to ask. Why are you doing this for them? I mean they’re all in prison?”

The young man is earnest, genuine, not following a Daily Mail preach. Yet it takes you by surprise, having listened to his performance, watched the joy it produced. Why would he need to ask the question?

Because we believe in this. It engages people. It has the power to change, give people the agency, the space, to change themselves. We’ve always wanted to take arts and literature to those who had least access to it. Prison is the obvious place. We’re all getting out at some point.”

He nods his thanks.

I just wanted to ask. Makes sense.”

And that too is success.

 


Image: The Vodka Hunters, credit: David Kendall