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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Writers at Large: Prisons

In this new series of articles, I'll be discussing some of the many opportunities that exist for writers to make a sideline income talking about writing and encouraging others to write. In this first article I'm looking at writer-in-prison work.

I should start by saying that all these articles are written primarily with reference to the UK, which is where I live. Most will apply to a greater or lesser extent in other countries as well, but you will need to do your own research here.

The UK Prison Service has a long tradition of inviting writers (and other artists) into prisons. The role involves encouraging prisoners with an interest in writing to explore and develop this. Writers in prisons typically run writing groups and classes, and also offer one-to-one advice and support. They may give readings of their own work, and also take on projects such as producing an anthology or display of prisoners' writing.

Another aspect can involve collaborating with other freelancers, such as musicians, actors and visual artists. A collaborative project might, for example, involve writing, producing and performing a play or even a musical. The ultimate aim, of course, is to enrich the day-to-day experience of the inmates, and hopefully make it less likely they will re-offend when they are released.

Many people (including me, I admit) find the thought of working in a prison rather daunting. However, most writers I know who have done this have found it a rewarding and enjoyable experience. As a writer in prison, you won't be expected to try to 'convert' the inmates to writing. Rather, in most cases you will work with a small group of prisoners who have expressed an interest in creative writing. With lots of time on their hands, writing can be a popular pastime, and one which can be therapeutic for the individuals concerned in coming to terms with the situation they find themselves in.

Writer-in-prison work in the UK is reasonably paid, though you won't get rich. Typically, you will be employed for three days a week, for a period of three to twelve months (which may be extended). The sort of fee I have seen offered is 20,000 UK pounds (around $38,000 US) a year, pro rata. So if you were employed for a year working three days a week, you would receive 12,000 pounds, plus travel and any other out-of-pocket expenses. This is just an example, and in practice you might get paid more or less than this.

In my experience, the best place to find ads for writer-in-prison jobs in the UK is the Guardian newspaper - check out the Creative & Media pages on Mondays, or you could do a search in their jobs section.

You don't need to be a 'household name' to get work as a writer in prison, though obviously you need some sort of track record as a writer. All types of writer are required, and this can be a good opportunity for poets, who can otherwise struggle to find paying outlets for their talents. Indeed, many of the people I know who have done this type of work - e.g. my old friend Gary Boswell - are primarily poets, though Gary is also a talented short-story and non-fiction writer.

Finally - and this is why I started this series with a look at prison work - there is currently a call for writers to work in prisons in Lancashire. The organisation concerned, Litfest, writes:

We are running six short-term residencies across Lancashire prisons during April and May 2008 for the Offenders Learning and Skills Council at Lancaster and Morecambe College. These residencies will work with offenders to produce new writing, audio recordings and artwork to be broadcast on BBC Radio Lancashire and exhibited across the county and online throughout 2008.

We want to recruit 6 writers to take part in an initial training and development programme to both equip them with the skills and understanding to work in prisons, and to develop a model for working collaboratively with visual and sound artists.

Writers will be selected from this initial programme to work on the residencies. There are bursaries and travel expenses available to attend the training and development sessions and writers fees for those working on the residencies.


For more information about this, and details of how to apply, please see this topic on my forum. Note that the closing date for applications is 14 March 2008, so you will need to move quite swiftly if you are interested.

In future 'Writers at Large' articles I will look at the opportunities that exist for writers in other fields, including schools, adult education, writers circles/conferences and in the community.

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