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Messages from inside: poetry and prose, art and animation from Koestler award winners

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This artwork by Daniel, ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’, is on display at the Southbank Centre in London from today as part of Re:Form, the annual showcase of Koestler Trust awards winners -  prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatiric patients and immigration detainees.

There is a selection of poetry and prose at the exhibition, as well as fine and applied arts, design, music, film and animation. Daniel, who is from HMP Cookham Wood, a male juveniles' prison and young offenders institution in Kent, has added these word to his haunting work: “Hopefully this will show a picture in people’s heads of what prison feels like … to show people not to come here.”  

This year’s judges included the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and rapper Speech Debelle. Literature and spoken word make up a third of the annual entries, and the Poem category received 1,297 entries this year, more than any other. As the Re:Form programme says: “Some of the writing is produced in literacy classes … some entries arrive on pages torn from notebooks with increasingly small handwriting as the author runs out of paper.”  

Poetry award winners included ‘Chemical Cash Cow’, submitted from HMP Glenochil in Clackmannanshire. It won a platinum award.



    The pink one keeps me happy and stops me feeling sad

     The red one keeps the pink one from making me go mad

     The white one helps me sleep and the dark blue one helps me think

     Though I sometimes think of suicide if I take it with the pink

     Two green ones keep me calm and help me not to panic

     But I do not take the green ones if I think that I am manic

     My orange, it has side effects they make me feel quite ill

     So I told this to my doctor who gave me a yellow pill

     Now I’ve got a rainbow which I swallow when I’m told.

     And the makers of the rainbow? They earn a pot of gold.



Another platinum award went to ‘Jist tay let yi know’ (inspired by William Carlos Williams and Tom Leonard), an entry from HMP Shotts, in Lanarkshire:



    Jist tay let yi no

     the bujys deid


     ye left thi caje opn

     thi cat goat it


     so doant feed thi cat

     its hid enuff thi day


Write Out Loud's Gig Guide editor, and poet, David Andrew has been a volunteer for the last two years at the Koestler Trust, giving feedback on works submitted to the annual competition that have not won prizes. He said: "Because of confidentiality, work is done at the trust’s offices. The offices are in what was originally the prison governor’s house, as you go into the grounds of Wormwood Scrubs.

"I gave feedback on poetry submissions, concentrating on collections rather than single poems. You don’t know the prisoner's name and you don’t give yours. Entries are identified by a number but you do know which institution the person is in.

"The work itself is, in effect, a review. You’re dealing with someone you’ve never met who’s in difficult circumstances. What you are reading may be the writer’s first outing in any kind of original writing. It’s tiring but very rewarding. I encourage others who can get to the trust’s offices to volunteer next year."

Poet Tim Dooley, reviews editor of Poetry London magazine and a tutor at the Poetry School, has worked for Koestler as a mentor and as a judge for writing awards. He said: “It’s been an extraordinary privilege to see the contribution arts work has made to the self-examination and recovery of self-esteem of offenders.”

But he added: “I was saddened, in working with Anna Robinson and Jack Underwood in judging the awards for poetry collections this year, to notice how few prisons in England and Wales were represented in the entries. The majority seemed to be from devolved Scotland, illustrating perhaps a shift away from support for arts work in prison education [in England and Wales], which I cannot help but feel is a serious error.”


Re:Form, art by offenders, secure patients, and detainees from the 2015 Koestler awards, is on display from 1 October to 29 October 2015, daily 10am-11pm, at the Spirit Level, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London SE1 8XX. Free entry.


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