The Sunday Telegraph
‘One man had killed another on my day off’
Sunday night drama, ‘Time’ reminds Jane Corry of the years she spent working in a high security men’s prison
I’m in a high security male prison with bars on the window. Five men are with me. There is no prison guard in the room. I am running a poetry workshop.
At the end, one of them comes up to me. “Jane,” he says. “I I need to tell you what I’m in for.”
“Please don’t,” I reply. ply.
A member of staff had already warned me during week one that it wasn’t a good idea to know what “they’d done”. “It might freak you out,” ” she’d advised.
“I have to tell you,” ” he said, shifting uneasily from one foot to another.
This kind-looking courteous man – who had a family, and previously had had a professional career – then proceeded to list a litany of violent crimes that sent shock waves through my spine.
I didn’t mean to go to prison. But my regular column in a woman’s magazine had just ended, and I needed extra income. I applied for a job as writer in residence of this pris prison, hoping I wouldn’t get it. But I did. Watching Jimmy McGovern’s g gripping new BBC drama, Time, has bro brought the extraordinary experi experience, which affected me pro profoundly, flooding
On da day one, I was given a bunch of keys on a belt and in instructions to n never let these out o of my sight. I also had a whistle. To go into the wings, you had to unlock two lots of double doors. When you op opened the second, yo you could see men on the other side w watching. Were th they going to rush me in a bid for freedom? It never happened but the “what if ” always made me tremble.
Once in, you had to sign in at the officers’ mess. I would be frisked and checked for prohibited items. These included sugar (an ingredient of hooch) and chewing gum, which could be used for making copies of keys.
The sex offenders wing was the worse. You had to walk down a long corridor to get to the office. Every pair of eyes was on you.
My role was to help men who had committed headline crimes to write, as a form of therapy to help them confront their pasts, express their feelings and maybe forge a better future.
Time follows a teacher, played by Sean Bean, who has killed a man when drunk-driving, as he tries to survive the prison system.
I quickly learnt to drop any assumptions I had about the type of people you’d meet in jail: the prisoners I worked with came from a wide variety of backgrounds – lawyers,
bankers, and one man who had worked in senior management and got “bored at work” so borrowed a gun and threatened someone with it.
The life stories we wrote together were always eye-opening and often disturbing. One man described learning credit card fraud at his mother’s knee and a subsequent career in arson. A third – on the sex wing – started to write about a relationship he had formed with a child until I stopped him. There were many accounts of abuse: as depicted in Time, men wrote about being attacked by other prisoners with a lethal combination of boiling water and sugar.
Several of my students wrote about the anguish and leaving family behind. Rarely did they write about their victims. I helped them to write stories for their children as part of a nationwide project called Storybook Dads. Recordings would then be sent out to the families (having gone through official channels). It meant the children could hear their fathers’ voices. There is real writing talent in prisons. Words echo with guilt, sorrow, fear and despair. It’s a rawness that slices you like a razor.
No one spat on my lunch as they do to Bean’s character. But one was transferred for allegedly putting bird poo in ice cream.
Yet there was a real desire among both prisoners and staff for reform. A lawyer in my group spent his free time writing down another prisoner’s poems. The latter had never learnt to read or write but had stories in his head.
I would emerge at the end of the day, my head reeling as I went home to cook supper for my teenager.
“Is it safe?” my friends and relatives would enquire anxiously.
I wasn’t sure. But I left a big pair of men’s boots in my porch to give the impression that we weren’t alone, just in case anyone paid me a visit.
Gradually, words became a great leveller. I felt I’d found my calling. Men generally wanted to write and I wanted to help them. But I did get concerned when one began to follow me around the wing, asking me to look at his (very talented) work. I broke my own rule and looked him up. Then I made sure I was never alone with him again. On another day, I came in to find a deathly air. One man had murdered another during my day off. The shockwaves were palpable.
The chaplaincy played a major role. When I first started I was told that men discovered either God or the gym in prison. That gave me an idea. In my last job as a journalist I had interviewed celebrities on sayings and prayers that helped them through life. So I asked prisoners and staff to do the same. I called it the Book Of Uncommon Prayer. We got it printed and it sold out.
Every few months there would be a friends and family day when each wing would have a tea party. One student invited me to meet his mother and wife. It felt weirdly normal. Another wrote a poem about the anguish of checking for post every morning and receiving nothing.
I entered my men’s work for writing competitions. One won a national award. The change in his behaviour was extraordinary, according to one of the prison officers. Another man said that if he’d been able to express his feelings differently, he might not have killed his best friend during an argument. “But I did ring the police to tell them what I’d done,” he’d added.
When the prison governor asked me
Staying in a cell overnight was the most terrifying night of my life
if I’d be prepared to stay in a cell overnight as part of a charity drive, I felt obliged. But it was the most terrifying night of my life. Nothing happened. It was the claustrophobic feeling of being shut in with a locked door, a bowl under my bed to do the obvious, the emergency button, the click of the officers’ feet along the corridor to check on the residents and the inability to ring my love ones which kept me up all night.
I went into prison for two days a week over three years. I would drive home drained and yet buzzing. Now I’m a life story judge for the Koestler Awards, given to men and women in prison for writing and art.
When you’re in prison you don’t want to be anywhere else, because you’re helping. And when you’re out, you miss it.