Some years ago I ran a workshop in a London prison, and recent publicity about the state of prisons reminded me that not much has changed or rather, it probably hasn’t improved. I’m an author and illustrator, often run workshops for all ages, and was asked to do a drawing event for prisoners on one of the prison’s family days, when some fathers, through their good behaviour, earned a visit from their families.
Pentonville Prison, built in 1842 to house 600 prisoners, then had about 1200 young and adult men serving short sentences or waiting to be sent on to other prisons.
I was invited to do a recce the week before, after having my fingerprints taken, handing in my passport and mobile phone, but not my shoulder bag. Prisoners, some a bit over friendly, were wandering about aimlessly outside their cells. There was an overpowering, sickly smell of chemicals. I was accompanied by the family liaison officer. I asked about one prisoner in a wheelchair. ‘Oh that’s J,’ said the officer, ‘he’s in and out here all the time,’ she said sadly. ‘he robs post offices and such like, always a bit slow escaping.’ The cells were tiny, each one with a two tier bunk bed, very low on the ground. ‘To discourage anyone hanging themselves,’ I was told. Prisoners sometimes stored food in their cells, to the delight of visiting cockroaches and rats. There was a stained toilet in one corner.
After the recce I crossed the road outside the prison and had a cup of tea at The Breakout café, where samples of prisoners work was displayed on the wall. Or it might have been work by the prison officers, who nip in here for cups of tea and huge fry ups.
My event wasn’t initially a huge success as children were more keen to see their dads than do much drawing. There were tables to draw on, but awkwardly low on the ground, to stop forbidden items being passed underneath. Apparently sometimes the babies’ nappies are checked for forbidden items being smuggled in.
I made a clothes line of string so drawings could be displayed – I’d encouraged participants to invent astronauts and space related things – and we held a competition. One of the prison staff introduced me to a large man who I think was a governor or maybe boss of that wing. He joined in and made a drawing. Another member of staff hissed: ‘Let him win the competition!’ I didn’t because there were far better children’s drawings. I wasn’t invited back.