/ 28 June 2006

Inside stories

‘By doing art and writing, you can look at situations in a more objective way.” Phil Forder, writer-in-residence at Her Majesty’s Prison Parc, a privately run Category B prison in south Wales that holds nearly 1 000 adult prisoners and young offenders, is explaining the benefits he believes his work is bringing to the prison’s residents.

Forder, a gently spoken man, came to prison education after working for 10 years in Waldorf-Steiner schools. Rudolf Steiner, who founded his first school in 1919, believed in teaching the ‘whole child”. His method was to encourage a more ‘human relationship” between teachers and children, and he decreed that teachers should give a moral lead but not teach a particular set of beliefs. Steiner advocated learning for its own sake, without tests.

Forder’s experience with the Steiner methodology appears to have provided him with the perfect grounding- for his current role at Parc. He was the prison’s art teacher for five years before becoming its writer-in-residence several months ago. As is often the case with teachers in prison, teaching is only one aspect of it. ‘They [prison officials] asked me to work more in a therapeutic way,” he says. ‘We don’t use the term ‘therapy’, of course, because I’m not a therapist. But I do a lot of work with youngsters who are self-harming. Believe it or not, it’s usually guys facing going out who cut up. They’re frightened of the outside.”

One of six children brought up on a housing project in Essex, east of London, Forder has some understanding of the underprivileged backgrounds shared by many of his current students. ‘I hated school,” he says, ‘lots of bullying, which ultimately led me to teach in the Steiner schools. But then it was teaching there that eventually made me want to do something else. Though I never actually planned to work in a prison.”

It is easy to see why young prisoners feel able to talk to Forder because of his gentle, unthreatening manner. Such people are rare birds in the prison world, but the positive impact of their presence can reverberate through a closed community.

Sometimes the problems that many prisoners experience can be caused to a great extent because of the difficulties they have in communicating effectively. ‘I imagine that if you have a problem communicating before you come to prison, prison is likely to make it worse,” says Forder. ‘Prison is not an environment where you are going to want to open up.”

Yet he is making giant strides in getting them to do just that. As well as visiting the health centre, he spends one morning a week in the segregation unit doing one-to-one sessions with young offenders who are ‘on the rule”, meaning they have been segregated for their own protection. ‘Often it is about giving them attention more than anything else,” he explains.

He conducts sessions in the library, and also visits the wings, where he sees men in their cells or in groups in the association area. Was it difficult to gain the men’s trust? ‘Not really,” he says, and opens up a folder containing a pile of pencil-drawn faces. ‘I love doing portraits,” he says, flicking through the portfolio. ‘These are all blokes I’ve worked with over the past two or three years. I found out early on that this was a way of getting through. Whenever I draw someone they end up trusting me. I’ve got hundreds,” he says, ‘and I can remember them all.”

Twenty minutes or so into our conversation we are joined by prisoner students Chris, Arif, Wesley and John. Have you learned anything from Forder, I ask Chris. ‘Oh yeah, he’s a cracking bloke,” he laughs and the others join in. ‘This is my first time inside and it’s like a wake-up call, to be honest. When I’m writing things down, like poetry and that, it helps me to see, excuse my language, how fucked-up things were when I was out there.”

Chris is a fit-looking, stocky man with cropped hair and a ready smile. I could imagine him being one of the strong survivors on the wing. I ask him if he has a poem on him that he’d like to share and he surprises me with the quickness of his response. ‘Not on me, no, but I’ve got a little one in my head that I wrote for my missus.”

Before joining Forder’s class, Wesley had never been involved with writing as a creative or a therapeutic activity-. ‘Now I’ve written a book, for my daughter,” he says proudly and passes the A5 photocopied booklet across the table.

The title of the story is Onya’s Dog Day. It’s about a little girl called Onya who makes a wish to change places for a day with her dog, Kikie. After making the wish Onya looks in the mirror, ‘and there, staring back, were two big brown eyes, two long furry ears, one long cold wet nose, and whiskers. Onya screamed! Well actually she barked!” It’s the kind of magical story that any little girl would adore. I think it is a great achievement, but will it help him to keep out of trouble in the future?

‘Writing the story for my daughter has brought me closer to her and made me more aware of what I’ve lost and what she has lost by me committing my crime,” he says.

Jean, the prison’s librarian and resident mother figure, brought in the idea of Story Book Dads after a visit to a colleague in Dartmoor. Prisoners who are parents are encouraged to write and record stories for their children on CDs. Forder has helped to develop the project at Parc. ‘It’s a way of opening up channels whereby people feel able to talk about their family and personal life and problems,” he says.

Arif, too, has written a story for his daughter. It’s called Can’t You Sleep, Little One, and is about a little girl whose father helps her to overcome her fear of the dark by taking her outside. ‘Alisha saw the beautiful night. The moon smiled to her. The stars twinkled in her eyes. She was no longer afraid. She snuggled against her dad and fell asleep. Daddy picked her up and carried her back to bed. ‘Good night sweet girl,’ he said as he tucked her in. ‘Sleep well in the dark of night.’”

Forder himself has written a novel. Bang Up For Men: The Smell of Prison is the weird and wonderful story of Adrian Roe who, tiring of teaching art in a private school, dreams of teaching in a tropical paradise where ‘adoring native students would clamour for knowledge that only he could bring them”. Instead he ends up teaching the natives in Feldon Park prison, and in the process discovers a different type of paradise. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, Roe’s story is transparently based on Forder’s real-life experience. I read it in two sittings, stunned that someone who had never been a prisoner could have written it.

Forder is obviously valued greatly in the prison community and has the full support of the prison authorities, but he recognises that he and they are on a learning curve. ‘It’s a new venture,” he says. ‘As we go on we are finding where this work fits in, but we need to work more on developing a context where it fits in comfortably. This is a new thing for Parc, but it is something we all believe we can build up.” —