Stories Connect is CLTL in the UK

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.


15 thoughts on “Stories Connect is CLTL in the UK

  1. Mary: THanks so much for all your vision and hardwork there in England and Wales–and best for the future! Stories Connect and CLTL are like famiy members, and we should expand this family throughout Europe now–yes?

  2. What Mary has done in the U.K. is nothing short of amazing. She has not only gone into prisons but started a vibrant program outside. She’s got Exeter facilitators and a prof. applying for research funds and wonderful former students. Mary — let’s put our heads together about the next proposal– for 2011.

  3. Mary, the title of the program says it all: Stories connect us in so many different ways and open us up to so many possibilities, as your participants have discovered.

  4. Mary: could you please forward me your email address so I can send you some increadible old photos that Adrian toook at Chris. It is great to see your writing and community dedication–you also helped me write.
    Thanx from Ted

  5. Hi Mary
    I am a drug education consultant. What interesting sounding work you do! I’d be really interested to hear your perceptions of the (presumably many) ways drugs interact with the lives of prisoners whilst in prison.
    I also have many old photos, as Ted says!

  6. Hi Ted and Adrian,

    I’m not good at this blogging because I don’t have much time to do it. I thought maybe if I clicked on your name or the silhouette in the corner of your comment I might be able to reply direct to you. Anyway, lovely to hear from you both and my e-mail address is

    Adrian, where do we start with drugs in prison! In the Stories Connect group I run in Exeter I would say 80% have addiction problems – that’s also partly to do with the fact that Exeter & North Devon Addiciton Services (ENDAS) are partners and refer participants to our programme.

    Have you heard of the drug therapeutic community in Channings Wood prison, Devon? I don’t know where you are based but if you’d like to visit this TC then I could arrange to take you there as I still draw keys at the prison. It’s very exciting the work they do and the real benefits the prisoners get out of it. Very inspirational.

    And Ted…how are you? I often think about you and wonder how you are getting on. Drop me an e-mail and I’d love to see those photos.

    Mary x (I don’t think this is the normal kind of blog comment on this site, is it?)

  7. Hi Carl,

    Thought I’d better do a separate comment in response to your kind note on the blog. I was at school with both Ted McHale and Adrian King which is why my comment to them was rather more chummy than blogs usually are.

    It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t seen the magic of CLTL work just how stories do connect us and the power of the process. But then what have we done since the dawning of time – we’ve shared stories together and learned by them.

  8. Hi,
    After catching an article that referred to what you do in a paper I’ve been looking into this with a view to running a similar program at an addiction treatment centre I work at.
    If you’d be prepared to mail me with any info or advice you have I’d be very grateful.

  9. Have Exeter University secured funding for further research into Stories Connect? I have quickly searched their website and couldn’t find any reference to it. I am currently teaching English at an 11 – 18 London comprehensive and am interested in finding out more about this programme and the research hopefully being planned.

  10. I read the article ‘Novel Sentences’ in the Guardian – Society section – Wed. 21st. July 2010
    I’m a Prison Visitor – currently on sabbatical – from Send, a women’s prison in Surrey.
    Having long been persuaded of the power and magic of words/literature, I found the possibilities of bringing the insights and pleasures of reading to prisoners most attractive.
    Is there any way in which I could extend my Prison Visitor role to encompass the introduction of books and reading?
    I’d be very willing to undertake training.
    Please would you let me know if there is any way in which I could work on this programme?
    Thank you.

  11. I was interested in Anita’s comment and woulr like to know what advice you gave her, also, would like to contact Anita!
    Meanwhile am a Community Payback Supervisor who is allowed to do reasonably unconventional groupwork and would love to get some help setting up something like this – I already do some 1:1 with a female offender with much drug history and use books and art. Can you recommend some English rather than US books I could use, esp re drugs and life choices.

  12. Oh dear, I feel really guilty because I never looked again at this blog until now so huge apologies to Emma, Carol, Anita and Stephen for not getting back to you. I don’t really do blogs as I’m so busy trying to conquer the criminal justice world with literature and the arts. If you would like to contact me directly you can reach me through the email address for the charity I run – In time we will have an email address connected to the Stories Connect website but at the moment I don’t think we have.

    I look forward to hearing from you all,


  13. Anita Fox – can you pls contact me? I am interested in your connection with Send! Please use em: which is a voluntary organisation I am involved with, promoting positive mental wellbeing thru creative activities. Hope to hear from you,
    Christine Moody

  14. Stories Connect was a life changer for me. After being placed in the remedial stream as school age 11. My self concept, esteem and belief was severely damaged. I left school without attaining any qualifications. I fell through the cracks in society and became entrenched in addiction and criminal behaviour to fund it. After attending Stories Connect, I went on to complete an Access to Higher education course, and degree in Community Studies/Sociology. Stories Connect instilled a desire and belief in myself that I could achieve. I remain indebted to the facilitators and the program for helping me grow.

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