By Wendy Robertson
Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people, prisons can seem hidden, secret places. But others have more personal experiences with them that may involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.
Some people here in the North East will be in this position – having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because, over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.
Inside this prison, I worked with women from County Durham, as well as women from all other parts of the country. Generally, they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.
In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton – The Writing Woman.’
When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.
My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that traveled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.
We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops, we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision – never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.
These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with teacher and Head of Learning and Skills, Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.
Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas – even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.
My novel is not a case study. It is a work of fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives, not just behind bars, but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. In addition to Paulie – rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer – there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.
In Paulie’s Web, there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise there is the laughter, comradeship and tears. There is the bullying and night-time fear. There is the learning and self–revelation.
The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.
On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read, you might recognize, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.
The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing, they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.
After relishing and surviving academic life, Wendy Robertson became a full time writer twenty years ago. She has written twenty novels – including the recently released “Paulie’s Web” – both historical and contemporary, many short stories and continues to write occasional articles on issues close to her heart. She was writer in residence at HMP Low Newton, encouraging a wide range of women to raise their self esteem and realize their potential through original writing. She lives among the rolling hills of South Durham, in a Victorian house that has played a role in more than one of her novels. Her blog can be found here.