Feltham YOI - Letter from Guest Writer Ray Kinsella

Guest writer Ray Kinsella joined us for our fiction workshop. Here he writes about his experience of the visit and shares his journey to becoming a writer.

Hearing the loud clang of metal echo through those long bleak corridors instantly transported me back in time. The first thing I remembered was all the wings are named after birds, a fact I also remember pondering when I was in there as a prisoner about 25 years ago. As I trod down that grimy, red-brick tunnel it imposed itself on me and reflected a deep sense of sadness and loss. Sadness for my lost youth – not that I spent it all in Feltham or in other youth jails – I didn’t (only by sheer luck, I should add), but a sense of loss imposed by the swirling darkness that characterised my youth. Those corridors evoked memories of the single parent, broken home I was dragged up in, the drugs, the booze, the thieving, the violence, the fear, the quest for social status round my manor – you were a chap ‘round my way if you’d done a bit of bird. But perhaps the saddest thing of all was that in my social and physical environment all the roads paved in front of me seem to have led to jails and institutions. 

Somehow, I managed to claw my way out of that pit of despair and turn my life around. In my thirties, after a life ravaged by addiction to booze and drugs, I walked into a college in Central London and enrolled on a basic English course. It lasted a year, and other than the odd, short custodial sentence or 6-month stint in a drug treatment centre, it was the first thing in my life that I’d completed. I went onto do an access to higher education course in the Humanities and Social Sciences and then to university where I did a degree in English. That experience was daunting, I found it harder being round middle-class kids than I did in the environment I grew up in, but I soon realised that the only person judging me was myself – I made some great friends there. After I graduated with my bachelors, I went on and read for my Masters. There was no stopping me, I wanted to go all the way, and am now in the second year of my Ph.D. 

I was invited in to Feltham to read from the manuscript to my first novel, The Maze – a book about a lost soul whose life is transformed by education. It was beautiful and powerful, to be able to share my experiences with people that I have so much in common with, and to hopefully show as a living testament that change is possible. On my way back into central London I thought about the experience and was deeply moved by the mountains of talent temporarily lost behind the door in that place. As I reflected, I realised that where I come from, both socially and geographically, the hard times have served me in good stead. I suppose what I’m saying is this: not everyone will care about this story, some people will glance at the words and flick to the next page. But there might be someone that likes the idea of this, and I just want to say – if I can do it, so can you. Trust me, I was a lost soul, fumbling round in the dark going around in circles for years. It’s not like that today, there is hope.