Reader Story: Shared Reading in HMP Low Newton

In preparation for RISE (Reading in Secure Enviorniments –  a collaboration with seven national literary festivals to bring contemporary writers to criminal justice settings) we read Jean Sprackland’s poems for a few weeks.

This focus on one poet is a new, rewarding, departure for the groups. Themes were explored, comparisons made, and we came to really know Jean’s subtle, gentle, funny yet serious voice. As one reader put it; I really like these poems because they’re real. They are real life”

Mattresses talks about everyone’s life but has a darkness that resonates with the women reading here. On the first reading one woman couldn’t hear the mattress but only a tale of a broken woman, lost and discarded. The others listened politely, sensitively, but then the group moved on, back to the text, and the talk returned to mattresses, how they are an ‘archive’ of the everyday and everybody. The same woman’s expression changed to one of surprise: the idea that there could be other things to the poem, any poem, than what struck her at first reading was genuinely a new one.

Another, deeper, insight followed: “I saw me”. What had been evident to everyone else in the room startled this woman to a laugh, and you could see her visibly awaken to new insights about herself and the potential of poetry.

In another group the darkness helped to draw a listener in, intriguing her despite her previous hostility to what she described as the ‘irrelevance’ of poems.

“I like people’s stories, and now I’m going to pass a mattress on the way the out and wonder what secret’s and stories it can tell.”

Someone else quickly responded “I wouldn’t want anyone to know the stories my mattress could tell”, with mischief and bravado in her eyes. This was greeted with a smattering of laughter, but I wondered if it was my imagination that I saw a trace of embarrassment in the truth that hid behind the joke as she looks away.

Another reader looked up thoughtfully, “we don’t want to think about the stories of the mattresses here, we want to block out the previous occupants.”

The others nodded in agreement, talking about their dislike of an older style of prison mattress, ‘…reeking with secrets.’ The new plastic covered ones are much better, all agreed. Hard, not particularly comfortable, but they’re impersonal and let you forgot they’ve been shared.

Even better the plastic surface can be wiped. One woman, usually very quiet, described kneeling on the floor and washing her mattress down when she first moved into her cell. There was another pause and then she held my eye, Not that it was dirty like, just for the peace of mind, you know, psychological cleaning.”


* Please note, all Reader Stories are anonymised 

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