Inside job

Wednesday 13th April 2011

FREE the day they want me. Bet it looks just the same. New bus pass should mean no hassle with security. Hope they’ve finished repairing the chapel roof. Don’t suppose any old mates’ll be around, but the lads are generally pleased to see me. Yep, I can’t wait to be back in Her Majesty’s Prison Gloucester.

I answer the email, suggesting they phone to discuss times, fee, and anything they’d want covered in the workshop.

A project on tattoos I once ran in Leyhill, an open prison, culminated in an exhibition. Alongside designs and photographs of their own body art were the participants’ poems, written during workshops. We also had a video installation of one prisoner – let us call him Jim – using a biro, toothbrush, cassette player motor, gaffer tape and some other bits and pieces, to assemble, in fifteen minutes, a typical inmate’s tattoo-gun.

Such devices are, of course, confiscated if found, but the governor had kindly agreed to our recording Jim’s handiwork, on one condition: that we didn’t film his face. What would be regarded elsewhere as rule-breaking was, to an extent, seen here as ground-breaking.

A number of dignitaries attended the private view, asking questions, taking photographs, sipping fruit juice. The lads gave their guests a presentation, showing off some tattoos, Mick reciting their poetry and Pete delivering a lecture, The Tattoo: A Brief History. Jim, congratulated by attractive women, blushed. All shared grins, handshakes, a sense of accomplishment.

As the men and I said our farewells, an officer waited to walk them back to their cells.

“First time in more than a decade I’ve been outside after dark,” Jim told me.


Another email: HMP Gloucester had hoped there’d be ‘no charges’. They have no budget. My reply explains how arts initiatives and library services funded the earlier workshops. I add that I am not a believer in the Big Society.

Hey, Dave, cut costs! Let prisons be run by elderly, middle-class volunteers! My imagination runs riot.

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