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The Power of Writing: Stratford-Upon-Avon Literary Festival Prison Workshops

Claudia Vince, about 3 weeks ago

'It's amazing how much you can achieve with someone telling you how to open up your ideas and tap into your imagination.'

For their 10 th annual literary celebrations, the Stratford-Upon-Avon Literary Festival has launched a 'sharing stories' campaign which aims to encourage parents to take the time to read with their children on a regular basis. Part of this project has taken place in several female prisons, where workshops have been facilitated which provide women with the opportunity to write stories for their children, and then audio record them so their children can listen to them at bed time.

The parental separation that comes about from imprisonment is often highly stressful, confusing and traumatic for children, and likewise the process is also incredibly difficult for parents. As many of the 4,000 female prisoners in England and Wales are primary care givers, many are particularly attuned to the difficulties caused by separation from children and the challenges this poses for family bonding. The Literary Festival aims to address this, by helping these women reconnect with their children whilst improving their own literacy skills, well-being and confidence.

To date, Stratford-Upon-Avon Literary Festival has facilitated story writing sessions in HMPs Peterborough, East Sutton and Drake Hall. Each workshop lasts one day and is divided into a morning and afternoon session. Often, the women who attend the sessions worry they lack the ability to write a story for their children and fear that limited literacy levels will hinder the process. For this reason, the day begins withfun and engaging activities and imagination games which aim to increase the confidence of the women and make them feel at ease with the process of exploring their own imagination. Following this, the facilitators, who are all published authors, advise the women on the structure of a story and introduce them to the idea of a plot and characters. At the end of the day, the women have produced their own stories for their children and are given the opportunity to share them with the group. Through a partnership with Storybook Mums and Dads, the stories are then read aloud by the women, recorded, and produced on CDs or DVDs, which can then be sent to their children.

These workshops can be cathartic, liberating and uplifting for the women involved, as they take great pleasure in the opportunity to build a bridge with their families and share with their children the final product. Many of the women involved believe they are not good at anything and they are often deeply ashamed and worried that their children may reject them. In writing these stories, the women are able to tell their children how much they love them and reassure them that they are still around, even when they are not physically there. Not only is this likely to ease the strain on relationships, but it is also likely to have improved outcomes for rehabilitation by enhancing family bonds and hope for the future

'I would never have believed I could write this story, but I'm really pleased with what I have achieved. I'm proud of my stories and I think my daughters will enjoy them.'

Opportunities such as the ones provided by Stratford-Upon-Avon Literary Festival and Storybook Mums and Dads are essential in breaking the cycle of offending and ensuring individuals re-enter society with the right tools to succeed. These story writing workshops provide women with confidence, self-esteem and reassures them that they can better themselves. This is likely to encourage them to pursue more education opportunities to improve their literacy skills and story writing abilities, which in turn will enhance their employability and future prospects.

Stratford-Upon-Avon Literary Festival is now speaking with more prisons in the hope of expanding the scope of the story writing workshops, and the sessions they have done thus far have precipitated further invitations. As is often the case with charity projects such as this, their ability to spread their message further is dependent on their access to future funding. The organisation is devoted to encouraging individuals from all walks of life to develop a love for reading, and they hope to be able to continue their work with families that are impacted by imprisonment. In doing this, they aim to rebuild family bonds, improve literacy levels and support the successful rehabilitation of female prisoners across the U.K.

'Today our words flew over the prison gates. I hope this important work can continue to reach other mums and dads imprisoned.'