Connected by stories
Offenders in and out of prison are discovering that sharing stories - whether in the form of poetry, books or drama and regardless of anyone’s literacy levels - really can change how they view themselves and others, says Mary Stephenson
Stories Connect is a programme I set up in 2000 as writer in residence at HMP Channings Wood in which groups of people discuss issues arising out of a story they have shared. It is easier to be objective about a fictional character’s mistakes and actions, and it gives us all a deeper understanding of human nature in general.
Based on an American programme called ‘Changing Lives through Literature’ (CLTL), I devised my programme to be run in UK prisons. CLTL was the brainchild of Professor Robert Waxler and Judge Robert Kane in Massachusetts who were disheartened by the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mind-set of the US courts in 1992.
Twelve offenders (called ‘participants’) meet each week with three or four facilitators. In a prison the facilitators are usually staff members – a writer in residence, a librarian, an officer. For the last three years, I have been running a group in Exeter for offenders in the community and substance misusers. My co-facilitators are a PhD student from Exeter University, a probation officer and a drugs worker.
“I could see beyond the uniform ... it made me realise she’s just as human. They’re ordinary people, just like ourselves.”
Participant at HMP Foston Hall
Something magical happens in every group. Our differences fall away and we become once again equal members of the human race with shared fears, hopes and dreams. There are no experts in the appreciation of a good story, regardless of our reading experience. Each person present will bring to a story their own unique experience of life; their understanding is as valid and important as the next person’s.
“She was having to confront herself, being away, being somewhere strange, being on her own – I related to that.”
Participant at HMP Foston Hall talking about ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’
At Channings Wood prison the programme ran for three years with over 100 men taking part. Seventy-five per cent completed the course and half of the remaining 25% were unable to because they were transferred or released before the course ended.
“I have never done anything like this before. I enjoyed it very much because it’s fun, you also get to hear other people’s views.”
Young offender at C-Far Young Offenders Centre
In America – where it is now run in ten states – they did a study into the effectiveness of CLTL. Two groups were selected, both with the same number and severity of criminal activity. Both groups undertook the same offending behaviour programmes except that one group also did the Changing Lives through Literature course. Within a given period, 18% of those who had taken the CLTL course had re-offended, while the recidivism rate of the parallel group which had not undertaken CLTL was 42%.
Since starting at Channings Wood in 2000, Stories Connect has run in HMPs Canterbury, Feltham, Foston Hall, Bullwood Hall (while still a female establishment), Rye Hill, Parc, Eastwood Park and Peterborough. It has also successfully run in C-Far Young Offenders Centre, Henley House Rehabilitation Centre and now for three years in the community in Exeter. Everywhere the reactions are overwhelmingly positive.
“In the past when I read books I used to just put the book down without a second thought about it. Now I look for a deeper meaning other than the initial story and try to put myself in that position just to see if I would act in the same way.”
Participant at HMYOI Feltham
“I thoroughly enjoyed these groups and found them to be an important tool towards self-awareness and understanding of human nature.”
Participant at Henley House
One of the most exciting outcomes is the way in which participants realise that they can understand writers like John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens. Literature no longer makes them feel like an idiot; all of us struggle with some of the language but a good story speaks to everyone. This has led many to overcome their fears and go back into education or to develop an interest they had but didn’t have the confidence to pursue.
“Academically, the course inspired previously negative learners to want to progress.”
Education Manager HMP Bullwood Hall
The Exeter programme is being evaluated by a man who was a participant on the course at Channings Wood in 2000. Having no previous qualifications and a history of offending, he went on to do an Access course and then a degree. He is now a full-time project worker with the homeless.
Exeter University has been so impressed by the Stories Connect programme they are applying for a research grant to bring the evidence of the programme’s success to a wider audience.
My dream is that this research will encourage other universities to develop partnerships with the criminal justice system and allow stories to weave their magic with groups of offenders across the UK … and I believe dreams can come true.
* Mary Stephenson is a freelance writer who specialises in working within the criminal justice system. As well as running a Stories Connect group in Exeter, she trains staff to run the programme in UK prisons. She is Director of the ‘String of Pearls Project’, a company she set up in 2004 to raise awareness of what prisoners’ families experience.
Funded by Storybook Dads and the Arts Council of England, she also runs workshops in prisons to help prisoners write their own stories for their children and make a book; their stories are then recorded under the Storybook Dads scheme.
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