Penned Up: The festival for and by prisoners

By David Kendall 

Penned Up is a unique arts festival. Unique because it takes place over two weeks in a chosen prison, and unique because it involves prisoners in its organisation.

Prisoners form the majority of the festival committee charged with nominating speakers, writing to them, deciding venues within the prison, working on the text and design for publicity materials, introducing and interviewing speakers, and chasing the million other details that make up a festival. Sitting on a committee alongside education and library staff and a creative team from Lewes Live Literature, men had the chance to reach out to personal heroes such as Billy Bragg, or draw inspiration from the arts events they had enjoyed in other prisons while planning the event. 

A category C prison, Erlestoke has a large proportion of lifers and men on IPPs and the committee wanted some of the speakers to be people with convictions, who could show that a different life was possible, and who could be inspirational “without telling people what they should do.”

Honesty and openness is what has made the events stand out - whether journalists Erwin James and Noel Smith, speaking about the challenges they have faced inside and outside prison, or author Charlie Mortimer’s use of wit and mordant humour to describe receiving his AIDS diagnosis in 1984.

Other highlights included artists included writers Kit de Waal (pictured left) and Dreda Say Mitchell, spoken word artist Mr Gee and Geese Theatre. Audiences heard about how to put a £40 million festival from a member of Glastonbury’s senior management team; and there was the debut festival performance of a prison band. 

The regime at Erlestoke allowed Penned Up to put on multiple events in the same day, so people could choose which event was for them. The whole idea behind the festival was to generate a buzz and debate, and break up the usual regimented timetable. People went from saying “Why on earth should I go to any of these?” to “Which one can I go to next?”

Having a wide range among the 20 events allowed discussions across topics such as foster care, family break ups, sentencing, depression and addiction. Conversations were informed by the events, and ideas explored. Weston College staff and men watched the events together, meaning there was more common ground for discussion than usual.

Feedback has been very positive: “Brilliant, eye-opening, and truthful,” was one man’s description. Weston College tutors were delighted to see men who didn’t normally engage in education taking part in the festival events. “It gives us a chance to show them what else they can do,” said one tutor.

Elizabeth Williams, Head of Learning and Skills at the prison said: “The festival provides an element of normality, something that happens in the wider community that is usually inaccessible to the offenders. More importantly it offers a chance for to embrace an experience and feel inspired; to look in on themselves and to focus on a direction to change and succeed.”

At the final event I sat chatting with a man I’d seen at several of the events and asked him what he’d got out of the festival. “To be honest. I just went to see everything I could,” he said. “I’ve just got some bad news, and having this over these two weeks has really helped me focus on more positive things.”