HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire for men with convictions for serious crimes has been designated the UK's first "fully therapeutic prison", and the Grendon Live Literature programme is run by Alan Buckley (pictured above with one of the prisoners) and Steve Larkin, two Oxford-based performance poets. Ten weeks of writing workshops culminate in a final performance.
The programme has been found to develop the inmates literacy and presentation skills, but what about the quality of the material produced? In Poet's Letter magazine Buckley writes:
An obvious question is: are the poems people write any good? Or is writing them just good therapy for the inmates? The answer is that the standard of writing and performing is incredibly high for a group of people (both inmates and students) who – on the whole – have never done anything like this before. Although the inmates in particular often write about traumatic past experiences, the reality for them is that they are in therapy groups every day, so they tend to be very clear about seeing the poetic task as different. Also, the series of seven workshops ends with a slam (“The Slam in the Slammer” – could it be called anything else?), open to visitors from outside as well as inmates, so there is a healthy pressure to write and work up pieces that are able to engage an audience, whether this is through humour, exploring the common ground of human existence, or challenging people’s assumptions.
As a trained psychotherapist myself, with fifteen years’ experience of working in mental health and drug and alcohol settings, a prison TC is a familiar environment. What is incredibly refreshing for me is to have the chance to engage with people in a a way that is so clearly focussed on creative expression and moving forward, rather than exploring historical hurt.