What I Learned About Writing From the Women Inside New Zealand's Prisons

Writing workshops are usually reserved for the middle class. But now the women of Arohata Prison are the stars.

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Mar 14 2018, 10:48pm

The crowd gathered in wait for the bus to prison was almost completely quiet.

It was the same punters you’d stand next to in line for writers festival session in which a literary novelist talks to Kim Hill: mostly white, mostly older, a lot of tote bags. Arts festival people, with the usual excited chatter muted.

Today we were going to see writers read their work, and write alongside them, but the writers were in jail. Tickets to this literary event cost $49. It made for an odd tension, and we were nervous; a bit about going to prison and self-conscious nerves about how it all looked: the possibility of a middle-class day trip, gawking for entertainment.

We’d had several emails: no phones, no food, no cash in the prison—but also that we refrain from debating the merits of the course while there, and that we remember many prisoners were also victims of crime.

On the bus to Upper Arohata Women’s Prison, everyone slipped into their own seats and the silence grew to almost bursting. Over a microphone, the tutor gave an introduction to the creative writing courses he and other Wellington writers lead in the region’s prisons. He was nervous too.

Then, we were through the prison gates. Mist hung over the Remutaka Hills behind the buildings. In front of them was an electric fence and a barbed wire one. Another bus had turned off to the men’s prison and we pulled into upper Arohata, home to 56 women. Getting us in had been, the tutor told me later, a mammoth operation. You don’t take 50 people and just walk into two prisons.

Write Where You Are is a collective of authors—they’ve asked not to be named individually in this story—who run creative writing workshops in Wellington prisons. The workshops are run in five or 10 session blocks; a notice is displayed in the prison for expressions of interest.

We filed through the metal detector and three sets of gates into a room at Upper Arohata, where 17 women who had just completed the writing course were waiting for us. They had spread themselves out around the tables, leaving gaps for us to sit. It was a squash, and we all had to wait our turn to ease the chairs back when we sat or stood up.

We were reticent rather than the overconfidence I was worried about, but the women hosting us knew what to do about it. They must be practiced at that, on visiting days, smoothing over the awkwardness with warmth and small talk. The woman next to me asked what I did, and told me she’d dreamed of being a photojournalist as a girl. She told me I should go to war zones and I didn’t like to say I didn’t want to. Later, we talked about mental healthcare in prisons, a subject I’d held forth on in newsrooms and at dinner parties previously, but this time I just listened.

We traced our hands and described the room from the perspective of our five senses—and then described it as it would have been 100 years ago. Again, the visitors were at a disadvantage; we’d just arrived and our senses were overwhelmed. The women hosting us shone: they knew this turf inside and out.

When it came to imagining the room in 1918, they did so with relish. “Torture!” someone said. “And rats!”

A prisoner sitting across from me beckoned the tutor down to her and told her she was doing a good job.

In between exercises, the women read for us, or a tutor read their work for them; non-fiction poems and prose mostly, from their latest anthology. It’s kept in prison libraries around the country with a copy each for the women’s families and themselves. The woman next to me mouthed each person’s piece along with them. When someone was nervous, others called out to steady them. One sang her poem, voice solidifying as she went, and I had to blink hard as she sat down.

I am barred from talking about the specifics of their work. But much of it was about prison: routine and monotony, loss of freedom and the relief it sometimes brought from the chaos outside. Women listed off the daily timetable—as a blessing or a curse, or both—until I could recite it myself.

I understood, now, what one of the tutors had said on the bus, and what two prisoners told me later: that this was an opportunity to engage with the outside world, to feel for a moment like they had not been forgotten. To them, it looked like someone gave a shit.

After the prisoners shared their work, guest writers from the festival spoke briefly about why they write. One woman, afterwards, told me she’d especially liked what criminologist Sylvie Frigon had shared: that they were not “prisoners” but “women in prison.” The prisoners I spoke to after the session told me that participating in the course had built their confidence and encouraged them into a writing practice that had continued when the classes were over. Write Where You Are has taught four to five hundred hours of workshops since the initiative started, a small chunk of the 10 million hours of “industry, treatment, learning and constructive” activities Corrections says New Zealand prisoners took part in over the 2016-2017 year.

"I’d love for this to be longer,” she said. She is three months into a three-year sentence.

It doesn’t seem like our successive governments have valued that enough. Prison is supposed to be hard, as one prisoner added, quickly, to something she was telling me about boredom, lest I think she was complaining—she had referred to “you as the taxpayer” a few times in the conversation; she’d clearly heard talkback. It is not supposed to be easy.

But the deck is already stacked against these women: the recovery and rehabilitation from lives outside; many at Upper Arohata have been transferred from overflow in Auckland or Christchurch prisons and rarely have the chance to see their families. A routine that isn’t yours. Work for 20-something cents an hour. And of course, the absence of liberty, the real point of the punishment.

But when it comes to the joy that can be harnessed from learning to create—that process of confronting yourself and moulding it into something to be shared out into the world, in hope of hearing an echo back? Everyone should have that chance.

One woman had said with surprise, “Oh! I have a little shake in my voice,” when she got up to read, before holding the room in her hand with two accomplished poems.

Afterwards, we sat for four minutes (four minutes! Timed!) on plastic chairs in a small yard outside while she told me she often nipped away for a moment to write things down, observations and things people said. I’d heard that many times before, from the novelists at writers festivals.

“That woman is definitely a writer,” I told her tutor later, and he agreed.

Another woman said the classes gave her the chance to process feelings she kept stuffed down without anyone judging her, to learn more about the women around her and herself.

“I’d love for this to be longer,” she said. She is three months into a three-year sentence.

Inside, there was a special afternoon tea in full swing for the prisoners and visitors to mingle and chat. It had the air of a party. I thought, sitting at the laminate tables, of my life-changing first writing workshops; one at a community hall that was BYO drinks, and another, in the room overlooking the harbour at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters. We had been encouraged to treat ourselves like writers, to respond to the gut-wrenching fear of telling the truth by spoiling ourselves with treats. At the IIML, we reclined in comfortable chairs and stuffed ourselves with homemade baking, a comforting reward for what seemed at the time like a terribly hard job.

The writers in prison have to cultivate a practice without all of that, but this one time they got an afternoon tea. I was pleased. As we filed out, one prisoner stood at the door to shake everyone’s hand. On the bus a Corrections Officer jokingly asked if we had “any extras” on board.

The author interviews women in Arohata Prison

I asked one of the tutors, who stayed behind when the bus left, what the mood had been in the room when we left. He described the giddiness of any group of new writers after a first reading.

“They were saying, ‘I got so much great feedback,’” the tutor said.

“I was thrilled about that. They had complete strangers coming up to them and saying, ‘Wow, that was fantastic.’ It was a good experience.”

The tutor had earlier spoken about the feeling of trepidation he has when entering the prison, replaced by hope when he leaves.The prisoners had challenged him, over the years, on what writing looked like. Some didn’t see, for example, why they should have to hear anyone’s critique of their work. Often, he said, the rooms were devoid of agendas or egos that could be found elsewhere.

As the bus sped through Porirua back towards town, it passed four o’clock, when the women at the prison would be having their dinner—two sandwiches each, a daily routine—and then 4:30, when they are locked in their cells for the night, until eight o’clock the next morning. The bus dropped us off at Te Papa and I walked 5 kms home in the rain, letting it soak through my jeans and into my shoes.

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