Feltham YOI - Project Director Wendy Smithers

It was a great feeling to be given the chance to work with the learners at Feltham because of a letter. A letter from a writer in one of our other settings, sharing his experiences as a young offender, enabled us to be working at Feltham. We were grateful that staff at Feltham invited us in to run this programme and saw its potential, from just this one letter. They’ve also worked hard to make the case for arts activity in the Education programme and persevered, so we could get access and deliver a range of creative workshops so huge thanks are due to Henry Smithers and to Tracie McCarthy from Novus and her team in Education B. 

In this pilot programme, I was surprised how quickly the learners shared their experiences, often difficult ones, with us and with others participating. They quickly made themselves vulnerable, they listened to each other, supported each other and trusted in us and each other. We achieved a level of connection early on that enabled sharing and the taking of creative risks. 

As a new, tiny project, working in a secure setting for the first time, I wondered what we had done to earn this level of intimacy. Cut off from your support network, with no family and friends to share your days and nights with, there are limited avenues to get emotional support in a prison setting. Creative programmes like ours can provide participants with safe ways to process and explore what’s happening to them, better understand themselves and connect with others through words and artworks. I’m surprised how often people ask me if this project is part of a church outreach project. Or a part of an academic university study. It’s neither. It’s a human project. It’s about seeing beyond labels we put on people to the individual. By understanding what matters to people, enabling them to create imaginary worlds and spaces, and building their empathy and ability to consider the lives of others, we hope they can imagine and create alternative futures.

A real highlight of this programme was when one learner agreed to me reading out his letter to his Mum to the entire group, many of whom he did not know. It made him vulnerable, but he shared it, partly to feel heard, partly to show others that expressing love for a parent and your own vulnerability was fine. It was okay to do. You could have heard a pin drop, which is a big  deal when you’re working with a group of 12 young men all fighting for attention and to be heard. 

One week, one of our learners left with the words, “Bye Miss and thanks. Now I’ve got to go back to jail.” Whilst in the workshop, he wasn’t in jail, he had gone somewhere else, fuelled by his own creativity. That’s the power of the imagination. We’ve all got one and it can take us anywhere.