Against the current- Penned Up at HMP Lewes

This was the Penned Up where nobody moved. It was the winter of 2020-21 and while other festivals went online Penned Up went onto the wings. Outside it was tiers and lockdowns, ahead and behind us. Inside, for people in prison, little had changed.  HMP Lewes has some pluses, it has an excellent library – you always want to work with a prison with a good library, and an art department next door. In lockdown the library staff, Emma and Matt, would again be key. The weekly challenges of our Against the Current programme, each set by a different artist/writer, were received with interest and enthusiasm.

“During a difficult time of no education or work and virtual isolation it has helped to keep brain active, and look forward to every week.”

“Taking part in the exercises has brought a lot out of me…getting a few certificates has given me a way of going forward with my writing. Something to carry on when I’m out of here. Big change in my self-confidence. Cheers.”

The challenges

  1. Write a TV or film review – Adrian Lobb
  2. Draw your cell using the method of one-point-perspective drawing, and then add imaginary elements to transform it. – Wallis Eates
  3. Fact or Fiction – sport writer, Paul Zanon (sports writer)
  4. Monologues – Mr Gee, spoken word artist
  5. Write about a time in your life when music was important. Up to 500 words    – Maggie Harris (novelist and memoirist)
  6. Conceptual art with Gary Mansfield
  7. Create a contents page poem – Deanna Rodger
  8. What Really Changes? – Andy West, philosopher, and writer
  9. Nature writing – Stephen Moss, writer and broadcaster

Emma in the library was first point of call each week – to send out the challenge and also to collect the responses. This all has to be done physically. It was the library (Matt) that carried the ideas to the wings, that’s not a metaphor in this situation. They literally carried them. Names were removed so we received the work never knowing anything about the person who sent it in.

Steve Newark, one of the guys from our second Penned Up committee at Erlestoke, now released, read each challenge before it went to the prison. We wanted to get some input from someone who had been in a cell rather than us deciding what would be ‘right’ for people.

Whilst the usual live Penned Up can feel pressured and frantic this was a slow-motion version. It was nice to see the feedback, and the responses to the challenges felt as if we had sparked small conversations internally and externally.  And there were individual acts of kindness and empathy, such as the officer who brought up a poem entry from a guy in the Seg (Segregation), giving an opportunity to connect, which we might not have had even if we’d been in the prison.

Usually at the end of Penned Up we have the long walk out of the prison, locking and unlocking gates, feeling a sense of something closing behind us. With Against the Current the final entries were about encounters with nature: a fox that wants to get on a bus, otters, sparrowhawks, magpies, and trees ‘devoid of leaves but not of life or purpose.’ It felt as we were all waiting for the spring to come.

We produced a broadsheet showcasing a selection of the work created.

In the summer we had the chance to hold a live event in the town. The idea was to interview Steve Newark as he had been in prison during the first lockdown, and Gary Mansfield about what producing art in prison had meant to him. At the last moment Gary had to isolate so we quickly did a zoom interview – finally we get to use zoom for Penned Up. We showed the video to great applause at the event. It hadn’t been intended for a wider audience but we loved it so much we put it here.

Penned Up returns to HMP Erlestoke in 2022.