I heard about Changing Lives Through Literature In 1999 as Writer in Residence at HMP Channings Wood, a medium security prison for adult men in Devon, England. I was immediately intrigued – why couldn’t the programme work as well in UK prisons? Thus Stories Connect (formerly known as ‘Connections’) was born.
From 2000 until 2007, Stories Connect ran under the auspices of the Writers in Prison Network at ten prisons and units across England and Wales, always with the same exciting results. Participants talked of it being a turning point, and of it giving them a sense of belonging to the group and the wider society. They discovered they had views people were interested in. They enjoyed hearing other people’s views, even when they didn’t agree with them. Most of all they discovered the world of literature and how Steinbeck, Dickens and even Shakespeare spoke to them.
“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 I try to put myself in that position just to see if I would act in the same way.”
– Young male offender at HMYOI Feltham
When I finished the residency in 2004 I still trained other prison staff to run the programme but I was missing being involved in a group myself. So I set up a programme for offenders in the community in Exeter, Devon.
I persuaded Devon & Cornwall Probation to become partners, and approached the head of English at Exeter University about being involved. Finally the Probation Service suggested we include ENDAS – Exeter & North Devon Addiction Services Criminal Justice team as partners as well.
The Paul Hamlyn Foundation has been a stalwart supporter and funder of Stories Connect over the years. They agreed to provide three-year funding for the new programme, and in May 2007 we started with our first mixed sex group of addicts and offenders on probation.
In prison you literally have a captive audience. Outside we had no way of persuading participants to attend other than the magic of literature. Without exception these participants were leading chaotic lives. Some had families to care for; others had some distance to travel. Would we be able to hold their interest?
Now, three years later, we still have two of our participants from that original group who attend regularly as mentors and help us to put the programme together at the start of each group. Six more keep in constant touch and attend when they can.
Here are some reactions from participants and graduates:
“This is to ‘sing the praises’ of Stories Connect (SC), which I really cannot do enough. I attended SC whilst on a Drugs Rehabilitation Requirement programme set out by the court, the Probation office and my local drug agency. Since completing SC and the court order, I went back to college and took the Access to Higher Education diploma. In October this year, I started BSc in Sociology at the University of Exeter.”
“It’s amazing. A couple of months ago I was a mess, drunk and never really cared. Now I got great mates like you, John and Tom and Melissa. People never really give me the time of day, so thanks.”
“I just wanted to get across how much I enjoy Stories. It’s helped me get through the toughest times I’ve had recently and I appreciate it so much Mary.”
“Stories Connect has helped me in so many ways. I can now look at a poem, i.e. “The Mask I Wear”, and see that most of us have a mask on each day.”
In November 2009 we held a conference about the future for Stories Connect. Jean Trounstine joined us and inspired everyone. She also made the group feel much closer to our CLTL colleagues. The conference was mainly about taking Stories Connect forward and Exeter University are seeking research funding to prove the power of Stories Connect. Once they have done the research, they propose to use it to develop the programme so that more universities in the UK link with the criminal justice system in this exciting work.
Mary Stephenson is a U.K. writer who specializes in working with prisoners and their families. In 2002 she brought a team of facilitators from her Stories Connect programme in Devon, England to Massachusetts to meet CLTL colleagues and sit in on several CLTL sessions.