• Lionel Fogarty with participants in the Unlocked workshop at Balund-a in Tabulam, NSW. (Photo credit: Johanna Featherstone)
A poetry program in NSW prisons is attempting to improve the literacy levels of inmates - and to help prevent them from re-offending.
By
Biwa Kwan, SBS

19 Sep 2013 - 9:26 AM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2013 - 9:54 AM

(Transcript from SBS World News Australia Radio)

A poetry program in New South Wales prisons is attempting to improve the literacy levels of inmates.

The non-profit organisation behind the program says improving literacy levels is one of the keys to breaking the cycle of re-offending.

And people from non English-speaking backgrounds are among the main beneficiaries.

It's a Monday morning at the South Coast Correctional Centre in New South Wales and teacher Johanna Featherstone is challenging her students with a task they have never done before: writing a poem.

Many find it a daunting task.

Malaysian-born Hong of Chinese descent says the hardest thing is writing the poem in a language that is not his mother tongue.

"I try to link up what is meaningful for what I'm going to express for people when they read they can feel it. That's the hard part. When you make a poem you hope that people who are reading it, they can feel it.

"When we express ourselves, we're afraid that people don't get it. But when people read it they get it, there is the most happiest way I feel."

At the end of three days of intensive workshopping, Hong joins the rest of the class in reading to what is - for most - the first poem they have ever written.

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"I'm Mr Hong. Life is short but today you're still wasting your life. Tomorrow you will realise that life is away from you. We always hope that we can live long life. Why not enjoy a wonderful life right now? ... Hello, I'm Alan McCloud and this one of riddles. I come in not too many sizes. I can be found all over the world. People don't like me because all I do is dodge people. But sometimes I can land and you will know I'm there... This a Peter poem. It is translated by Patrick. Speechless. You led me into a good play. Let me into a dream and a maze. Do not ask me about it. Just ask me about the end. This is short and sweet. This is unite us into one. This has already split my heart... My name is Lamb Chop. In the kitchen cook the chilli. My girlfriend does not let me. I feel the world is grey."

The inmates in the class have voluntarily signed up to take part in the workshop funded and run by the non-profit group promoting poetry, the Red Room Company.

Serving time in prison on drug-related charges, Chinese-born Lam says the workshop has helped him to achieve one key goal he set for himself: to improve his English language skills.

(translated): "Now I want to focus on studying English. This fills my emptiness. I feel very lonely in prison and sometimes I feel numb. In prison, I study English and learn to write poems. I spend more time studying English because my English is very poor. For example, when I am working in the metal workshop, I cannot understand others and there are no other Chinese people working there for me to talk to."

Hong says the main benefit he got out of the workshop was greater self-confidence and a newfound ability to communicate with inmates from other language groups.

"They (other inmates) say 'oh, you can make a poem'. There is a difference, different view when when they look at the Chinese bloke. We're not just Chinese. We can (speak English) spoken. We are creative. (It brings) equality, you can show respect to each other. That's a big thing, that's a big deal."

Red Room Company founder Johanna Featherstone says the program is as an offshoot of the company's poetry workshops run in high schools.

"Most of the work that we do and most of the work that I'm interested in and focusing on, is working with younger people in the low-to-medium security (correctional facilities). The majority of those people who are in those centre are in there for violence and drug-related crimes. And the majority of people are from incredibly disturbed, tough backgrounds and circumstances where they've been trapped in the generation after generation in this particular cycle.

"So the idea to be able to present them with poetry or something that breaks that cycle, in one sense, and allows them to have a skill that certainly makes their lives on the inside better and improved. But that they can continue on the outside."

New South Wales government data shows a large proportion of inmates have poor literacy skills.

45 percent of inmates did not finish year 10.

A literacy assessment of 70 percent of the state's prison population of almost 10-thousand inmates found one quarter could not read at year 10 level.

Half could not write at year 10 level, and some could hardly read or write at all.

Rapper and poetry workshop teacher Nick Bryant-Smith says a number of the inmates who sign up for the classes come from non-English speaking backgrounds.

"A lot of the inmates that we worked with were of non-English speaking backgrounds, particularly Chinese and Korean. It was about showing those guys that they do actually have the ability to communicate and express themselves in English and maybe achieve a sort of level of eloquency that they didn't know they were capable of. And initially there were a bit sort of intimidated and resistant to doing it. But we worked through it with them and it was really cool how the situation forced them to collaborate and so there were one or two guys in that group who had a better grasp of English and they working on translations together."

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Nick Bryant-Smith says the outcomes of workshops are not easy to measure, but go beyond literacy.

"Probably the thing that I took away most from my whole experience was the way we improved those relationships between the inmates themselves. And we allowed them to find out more about each other and each other stories and backgrounds and to bond basically. You know, by the end of it, on the last day we were leaving. I was seeing guys hanging out in the yard, chatting and talking about the poetry that (the cultural groups) at the beginning of the process had been very separate from one another."

Mr Bryant-Smith says he sees scope for the program to bridge divides not only among cultural groups inside individual prisons but across different correctional facilities.

One of the results of an early collaboration, involved turning some of the inmate's poems into a song with the help of Indigenous artist and blues piano player.

"I really like that idea of the story travelling from one centre to another. Any maybe connecting those guys on some level in a way they're not capable of doing because they can't physically leave.

"I also think there is a really important element of giving the wider community an insight the lives, the thoughts and the experiences of these prisoners. And I think often in society we forget about people who are in prison because we have effectively removed them from society."

Former inmate Brendan participated in the workshop run at the Balunda diversionary program for male and female Aboriginal offenders in northern New South Wales.

He says the workshop - along with other drug and therapy programs - helped formed part of the strategy that has kept him outside of prison for nine years now.

"I believe that cultural laws is the key to the discipline (needed to stay out of prison). And I look back now when I was younger, I should have stayed around my elders more and listened and maybe I wouldn't have gotten in trouble like I did. I found that coming back to Widjabul country, Bundjalung, that's where I have learnt a lot about my culture and respect and who my ancestors were and how they lived. So that really just cuts my heart. Now if the kids are really in trouble in school or they're in trouble with their parents they won't go to school. I take them out fishing in the boat down the river and we talk about cultural laws and respect."

The poetry workshops have been held up to four times a year over three years in New South Wales, and the Red Room Company's Johanna Featherstone says the organisation is looking to take the workshops to correctional facilties in other states. 

"One of the most important things is when you see a program that is successful is to continue to do it because you want to reach more people. We've worked with a small amount of correctional services in New South Wales. There are so many more and then of course there are many around the country. I would say the same thing about the same thing we run in high schools and junior schools too. For me, I think poetry should be a part of every student's life, not just the studying of poetry of dead white Australian males, but looking at all of the new contemporary poetry that's coming in from so many different voices."

NSW Assistant Commissioner for Offender Management and Policy, Anne-Marie Martin, is supportive of the program.

"I went and saw one of their presentations a while ago and so what I've seen is the ability for inmates to express how they're thinking and feeling in a different way and in a meaningful way to them. From our point of view, it's not resource intensive (self-funded), you know the poets are external coming out. So as long as they support, extend what we're doing and it can work within our environment then it's no concern in it continuing to be used."

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Anne-Marie Martin says that she is unaware of similar programs being run in other states, but the NSW Department of Corrective Services has found the arrangement with the Red Room Company beneficial.

"So each of the states have different initiatives that they're doing to target. So I think it would be a bit unfair for me to say what some of those states are doing. But rather it's more appropriate for me to focus about the good work that's happening here in New South Wales. Which around the literacy and numeracy, at the moment it's really the intensive learning centres, which is a great push forward. As well as programs like this - the Unlocked (program)through the Red Room company."

The New South Wales' government ten-year strategic plan has as one of its aims, to reduce rates of reoffending by five percent by 2016.

Professor of Criminology Eileen Baldry at the University of New South Wales says an even greater reduction - of couple of percent each year - could be achieved.

She suggests targeting low-level crime offenders serving terms of less than a year, who she says comprise the majority of the prison population.

"We're talking 60,000 people flowing through the prison system in a year across Australia and New South Wales maybe 19,000. By far the majority of that group of people come from a small number of places is really very important. Most of those places are disadvantaged. As far as the make up of those places are concerned there are particular groups of Cultures Other Than English represented to some extent. Some Pacific Islander populations, some southeast Asian populations. But by far the overrepresented group are Indigenous Australians."

Professor Baldry says state government services working in health and education need to work with better-resourced community organisations to ensure at-risk individuals don't enter the prison system in the first place.

"The biggest predictor of going to prison is going to prison before. So you know being known in the criminal justice system becoming part of the way you live is the biggest hurdle."

And the professor says literacy can be a key factor in giving inmates pathways to overcome the challenges of integrating into the community, post-release. 

"Literacy is a kind of marker for participation for enjoyment in connecting with a whole range of things in society. And it's also an aspect of not feeling ashamed. It opens up opportunities for different work for even considering further education, you know to go to TAFE."

For first-time offenders Hong and Lam, the strategy for breaking the cycle of re-offending includes a plan for the future.

(translated) "My goal is to improve my English so I can find a good job, to participate more in social worker activities and help others in need. As long as the job is in my interest, it will be OK."

"I'm pretty clear now in my mind what I'm going to do in my future. You know get a good education. Take good care of my family. Stay out of bad friends. Try to be good in future. Be a better man.

And for Brendan, who has made it on the outside and is now a homeowner, the battle to stay outside prison continues.

"I ain't do drugs, I ain't smoke cigarettes, I only socially drink every now and then. I still find it hard to do employment because my driving history and criminal so I have to wait for two years until I get a licence. Hopefully, I can do some mentoring or working with the youth or something like that. I like to tell the children the story about my life and how crime and drugs and alcohol ruined my life. So I would like to teach that to the up and coming generation."