Cap­tive au­di­ence The un­usual hon­esty of prison let­ters. Plus, Séamas O’Reilly

The Observer Magazine - - Contents - Words LUCY AYR­TON

‘Know­ing my card is the only one a per­son re­ceives is bit­ter­sweet’

Eight years ago, I saw a job ad on a lo­cal web­site.

A small char­ity was look­ing for a PR of­fi­cer. The ad was brief, but it struck me as sweet. In it, they said that through yoga and meditation, they of­fered hope and heal­ing to pris­on­ers. I liked the sound of that. Un­for­tu­nately, I had no ex­pe­ri­ence at all in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sec­tor, and I had also never done yoga and meditation. When they asked me why I wanted the job I said that I wanted to leave work each day feel­ing as if I’d made the world a lit­tle bit bet­ter rather than a lit­tle bit worse. I still work there to­day.

On my first day I was sent to the fil­ing cab­i­net room and told to have a look through some of the old cor­re­spon­dence to get an idea of how the let­ter-writ­ing el­e­ment of the char­ity worked. It was a trea­sure trove of sto­ries – con­ver­sa­tions be­tween a pris­oner and a let­ter­writ­ing vol­un­teer stretch­ing over years, oc­ca­sion­ally decades in some cases. The things that the pris­on­ers wrote re­ally jumped off the page – they were sad or an­gry, or de­spair­ing, or filled with ex­cite­ment and hope about the fu­ture. They were of­ten very funny. And they were hon­est. I had never en­coun­tered that level of hon­esty in con­ver­sa­tion be­fore – and I haven’t since.

In the last year my char­ity has re­ceived more than 3,600 let­ters from pris­on­ers (we al­ways re­spond). Most of th­ese will be peo­ple ask­ing for a yoga CD or a guide to meditation and we won’t hear from them again, but some en­ter into longer cor­re­spon­dence. There are some vol­un­teers and pris­on­ers who have been writ­ing to each other for years. The pris­on­ers who write to us will talk in the kind of un­guarded way that I only re­ally have with very close friends, late at night while we watched the stars at a fes­ti­val, or to my mum as she picked me up from the sta­tion and drove me home af­ter a bad break-up.

This can range from hor­rific rev­e­la­tions about their child­hood to con­fid­ing that they feel like they have turned a cor­ner in life and that the fu­ture looks brighter now. Some­times they just want to write about X Fac­tor or to moan about their vis­its be­ing messed up. You never know what’s go­ing to be wait­ing for you when you open the post – it’s al­ways a sur­prise.

There is some­thing about sit­ting down, alone, and writ­ing to some­one who you never ex­pect to meet that makes it seem al­most ridicu­lous to lie. When my boss asked if I wanted to start writ­ing let­ters my­self, I jumped at the chance. I’ve had rea­son­ably long ex­changes with about eight pris­on­ers since I be­gan. Of­ten they are off and on as the pris­on­ers go in and out of cus­tody. My long­est cor­re­spon­dence is about eight years. On av­er­age I tend to get a cou­ple of let­ters a month from pris­on­ers around the coun­try. I’ve also writ­ten per­sonal let­ters to countless more who’ve writ­ten to ask for help. Of­ten peo­ple don’t write back, but I don’t think that means I haven’t helped.

What I think re­ally makes a dif­fer­ence is the feel­ing that some­one is lis­ten­ing. There are a lot of men and women in prison who have very few peo­ple in their lives, and lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of pos­i­tive and sta­ble re­la­tion­ships. Post­ing a birth­day or Christ­mas card and knoi­wing that it will be the only one that a per­son re­ceives is bit­ter­sweet in a way I never get used to.

There is no in­ter­net in pris­ons. There is a fa­cil­ity to email mes­sages to pris­on­ers, but that re­lies on the of­fi­cers, who are al­ways busy, print­ing off the mes­sage and then tak­ing it to the cells. So, we write the old-fash­ioned way with pen and pa­per.

This fa­cil­i­tates a very slow-burn build of a re­la­tion­ship that I’m not used to. I was a teenager in the era of MSN Mes­sen­ger, so get­ting to know some­one through the writ­ten word is not new to me, but the ex­pe­ri­ence of only writ­ing once a month was in­cred­i­bly jar­ring at first. As well as the nat­u­rally slower pace of writ­ing, the let­ters get held up a lot. One of my cor­re­spon­dents wrote re­cently to tell me that all the let­ters at his prison had to be opened and pho­to­copied to try to stop the drug spice from com­ing in. The pho­to­copy was given to the pris­oner and the orig­i­nal was de­stroyed – spice is a liq­uid which can be soaked into pa­per and later smoked, and the prob­lem had be­come so bad that no orig­i­nal pa­per was be­ing al­lowed in at all. The let­ter I sent never reached him – he moved pris­ons be­fore the sys­tem had pro­cessed it.

Partly be­cause of th­ese de­lays, the way I treat the let­ters is very dif­fer­ent to how I treat an email. I read let­ters I re­ceive at least twice be­fore an­swer­ing them, and of­ten three or four times. I then wait a few days to give me time for some re­flec­tion. I have found that peo­ple don’t ap­pre­ci­ate this kind of be­hav­iour when they’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing via What­sApp. But I love this time and the level of at­ten­tion I’m able to give. The ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing an email land­ing in your in­box can’t com­pare with the ex­cite­ment of see­ing a let­ter

ar­riv­ing for you, see­ing your name writ­ten out in of­ten sur­pris­ingly neat hand­writ­ing. When I see one for me while I’m open­ing the gen­eral post, I al­ways save it for last. I have one man I write to who starts each h let­ter with “grab your­self a brew and a bis­cuit!” and I do o– – read­ing th­ese let­ters is a treat for me.

Be­cause of the na­ture of the char­ity I work for,

I keep my let­ters pretty tightly fo­cused on yoga, meditation and per­sonal growth. I also ad­here to o fairly strict bound­aries about what I’ll re­veal about ut my per­sonal life and even iden­tity – the peo­ple I write to know only my first name and the fact that I live e in Ox­ford. I re­ally don’t find this gets in the way of get­ting to know peo­ple. It makes me talk about ideas deas more than anec­dotes, and it stops me talk­ing about out my­self so much – a pretty use­ful life les­son for me in gen­eral. Even though I don’t talk about my per­sonal life, the peo­ple I write to are ex­tremely open about their own lives, ex­pe­ri­ences, ideas and feel­ings, de­scrib­ing ev­ery­thing from re­li­gious be­liefs to fam­ily break­downs, ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships and friend­ships.

I feel as if I know the peo­ple I write to very well – I won­der how well they feel they know me. But it’s not re­ally the point of me writ­ing – I view it more like the Sa­mar­i­tans: I’m there to lis­ten to them, it’s not for me. I do drop in the odd de­tail about my life though – one of the guys I write to knows that I com­mute to work by bike and he al­ways asks about it. I also have to watch my use of lan­guage and not put in too much in­ap­pro­pri­ate af­fec­tion, es­pe­cially if it could be read as sex­ual. I’ve had to shred a fair few let­ters over the years be­cause I’ve signed my name with a kiss with­out think­ing. Some pris­on­ers I write to are much more vul­ner­a­ble than oth­ers, and I do get af­fected by their sto­ries. Not know­ing what hap­pens to the pris­on­ers you write to, or be­ing able to in­ter­vene, is dif­fi­cult.

One man I wrote to for a few years told me how his whole life had been about ei­ther gangs or prison, ever since he was a young teenager. He wanted to get out of the cy­cle of crime and prison and try to live a nor­mal life, but he didn’t know how. In one of his let­ters he de­scribed be­ing so in­sti­tu­tion­alised and un­used to life on the out­side that he hadn’t been able to cross a busy road and had a panic at­tack. He wrote to me for a cou­ple of years, get­ting in­creas­ingly des­per­ate as his re­lease date ap­proached with­out there be­ing any plan in place for his hous­ing, or the sup­port he needed to live out­side. When he was re­leased I thought about him for a long time, and I never deleted his birth­day re­minder from my cal­en­dar. I can’t send him cards any more, though – he left no for­ward­ing ad­dress and I don’t know what hap­pened to him.

When I came to write my novel, set in Hol­loway women’s prison, I didn’t base my pro­tag­o­nist on one par­tic­u­lar per­son. But there is no doubt that my years of cor­re­spond­ing with pris­on­ers has shaped the way I pre­sented her. I’ve loved read­ing their let­ters and my nar­ra­tor’s hon­esty, vul­ner­a­bil­ity and, es­pe­cially, her sense of hu­mour, are all in­spired by the peo­ple who’ve writ­ten to me. ■

One More Chance by Lucy Ayr­ton (Di­a­logue, £7.99) is avail­able for £7.03 from guardian­book­

‘Some­times I sign my name with a kiss with­out think­ing’

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