ART & WRITING BY THE UNFREE
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Alistair Fruish’s first published novel, called Kiss My ASBO – recently seen in the hands of Russell Brand at the Reading Agency’s annual lecture – is among a select group of books that have been banned from Guantanamo Bay. Alistair’s book to some extent has been influenced by his work in prisons, where he began working in 2001 as a writer-in-residence at HMP Wellingborough.
Since that time he has worked in 35 prisons as a writer and producer, in the male and female estate, in both the public and private sector, and in every category and type of prison and YOI – excluding prison hospitals and Secure Training Centres.
Along with HMP Full Sutton’s writer-in-residence, Gerry Ryan, he initiated the first writer-in-residence led project in the military prison in Colchester. He is currently writer-in-residence at HMP Leicester, where for a year his work was supported by the Joyce Carr Doughty Trust, when his residency with the Writers in Prison Foundation was shortened by cuts.
As one of the last few writers-in-residence who continue to fight for funding and access to prisons across the UK, Alistair tells us about his journey, his dyslexia and his vision of arts in prisons.
I’ve always had problems learning to read. And I still can’t really spell very well. I spelt my own name wrong the other day! They finally figured out that I was dyslexic in the week that I left school. That was helpful!
But actually it was. Once I realised my brain worked differently, I began to find that interesting. And when you find situations and behaviours interesting, well then that can be a key to changing them. And as I had finished with school it was up to me to do something about it.
With that perspective came insight – that I did things for a reason, and that some of those reasons were socially constructed. And that gave me a lot of confidence. Before that, I was obviously a reasonably clever guy, but I was failing in an academic context. When I should not have been. And that made me angry.
So I did my own thing culturally – got really into punk and started publishing a magazine and putting on gigs (this was before the Criminal Justice Act – I wouldn’t have gotten away with it after that). So I did not feel part of system. I had just been written off. So I decided to write ‘them’ off. When I realised that this failure was the school’s fault and not mine – that changed everything. I had been right all along. And fortunately discovering I was dyslexic coincided with the wonderful development of personal computers. Which are very helpful when it comes to checking spelling.
So I can see that if I had had more bad luck, and not such a good family life, this experience of being undiagnosed as a dyslexic for my whole school career – then that could have deeply alienated me, and could have meant that I ended up imprisoned.
I have lost count of the amount of undiagnosed dyslexics I have found in prisons: along with the prisoners with other literacy problems, thousands of school-damaged people who have partly been made into prisoners by not getting appropriate interventions when they really needed them as kids. I have also found overcoming the restrictions of the prison environment produces creativity. And it is of course rewarding to help people be creative. Wherever they are.
It’s not dyslexia itself that is a problem. It’s the undermining of confidence. It can do this intensely to people, but fortunately I found a way of approaching it that overcame that, and I try to pass this on to prisoners.
Koestler PLATINUM AWARD – Prisoner of the Mind, HMP Winchester,
St Pickard Commended Award for Sculpture
What dyslexia has given me is tenacity. I know with the first go at getting the words out, it won’t be right. I know I’ll have to rewrite and think about it some more. Play with the words. For me, writing quite literally is rewriting, so I am prepared to spend whole days making sure one sentence sounds, feels and looks good. That it conveys the ideas I want to get across in a way that is exactly right! I don’t think I would be like that if I wasn’t dyslexic.
So ultimately, dyslexia hasn’t held me back. Later, as a mature student, I got a degree in English, was even an English teacher for a while. I worked in publishing, edited a couple of magazines, helped to put out some comic-books, started a film development company and a couple of other organisations. And recently I have edited a number of books (not proofread them though!). I have discovered that I really like editing books. And I’ve written a reasonable amount of published material over the years, too.
So the whole prison interest is down to being dyslexic. I was a voluntary reading assistant in the primary school where I first had reading difficulties (helping kids with the same kinds of problems I’d had), when it first occurred to me that there were adults in prison who still could not read. When I saw the stats, I was shocked. And I thought that perhaps I should go and meet some of these people.
Sending writers and artists into prisons can have a very positive impact on the environment. Despite the cuts, there are still at least ten writers who do work in prison. We have managed to cling on in there, by one means or another. Though unless something is done fast, this will dwindle and many skills will be lost.
Writers working in prison have been responsible for many great things. They have also supported other schemes such as Storybook Dads, Prison Radio and Not Shut Up – and helped them to get going. The next year or two are probably crucial. If the staff are still around who remember what has been achieved and if the skills that are out there with experienced writers can be maintained and shared, then I think there is some hope that what has been severely cut back may re-emerge. I feel that the idea of sending writers into prisons was something our country could be rightly proud of. I consider it a privilege to have been able to do this work and do not want to be the last person doing it. And I will do my best to make sure that I am not.
Main image: Koestler SILVER AWARD – “Author”, HMP Peterborough, Lady Jennifer Sieff Platinum Award for Recycling or Papier Mache.
Tags: Alistair Fruish, dyslexia, HMP Leicester, HMP Wellington, Not Shut Up, Not Shut Up Online, prison libaries, prison libraries, prison library, prison radio, Prison Radio Association, Reading Agency, Russell Brand, Storybook Dads
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