6 October 2019
Palace Green Library
Review by Esalan Gates
Three women, all who have written poetry and prose about their extensive work in prisons, spoke with warmth and heart on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The set was beautiful, adorned by greenery and soft lights, the rustic panelling behind the speakers in Palace Green Library creating an intimate experience as these writers discussed their personal experiences with the prisoners they worked with,
Mim Skinner published her debut book Jailbirds in May this year, which reflects on her experience as an art teacher in a women’s prison. Sinéad Morrissey is an award-winning poet who worked with a group of male prisoners to create a compendium of their poetry and art, Hope on a Postcard. Avril Joy is also a highly successful poet who worked in women’s prisons in the North East for twenty five years and has written poetry articulating her perception of life on the inside. The event was chaired by Durham University’s Dr Josie Phillips.
The panel began with a reading by each speaker: Joy read two poems from her collection Going in with Flowers: the Poetry of Prison; ‘Skomm’ (an Old Norse word meaning “shame”) and the title poem ‘Going in with Flowers’; Morrissey read her poem ‘The Italian Chapel’, concerning a chapel that was built by Italian prisoners of war who were stationed on Orkney in World War II; and Skinner read an extract from a chapter entitled ‘Huskies Not Buskies’ from Jailbirds. She also performed her poem ‘She Wears a Paper Crown’ which was the starting point for the chapter of the same name in her book.
The panel then commenced discussion, opening with the difficulty of pushing back against a system while feeling empathy and respect for those working within it. Morrissey elaborated on her project working with male prisoners, talking about her recognition of the need for purpose in the prisoners’ lives, despite knowing that the compendium would never be commercially published due to the prisons’ restrictions. Both Skinner and Joy agreed that prisons are not the violent places that are depicted on our televisions, but interminably dull. Skinner stated that it is this boredom that has the adverse effects on prisoners, producing an array of startling statistics illustrating how ineffective prison is, especially with female prisoners. The most striking of these was that 53% of female prisoners are there because they were stealing to support the drug addiction of an often-coercive partner.
The theme of change emerged, influenced by the poems chosen by Joy to read. The two poems reflected the beginning and the end of a period of time she spent in a particular prison – demonstrating her changing perspective. Thus, it was poignant that Dr Phillips had chosen such a fitting quote to read from Jailbirds at the end of the panel: “I went into prison thinking that I would be able to teach women, and to reform a system. Instead, I learnt from those women and staff, and saw myself change.”
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.