This collection is the result of a Prisoner Publishing pilot project inspired by the work of nine imprisoned writers from Puente Grande prison in Jalisco, Mexico. The Puente Grande project was facilitated by DIY publishers Sergio Fong (La Rueda Cartonera) and Israel Soberanes (Viento Cartonero), who encouraged participants to put their pens to paper and taught them to make their own books by hand, using recycled cardboard to produce unique, colourful covers.
This practice, a way of making low-cost books in resource-poor, imagination-rich contexts, is known as cartonera publishing. Cartón refers to the cardboard used to bind the books through participatory community workshops. Cartoneros are the waste-pickers who first inspired a group of young artists and writers to set up their craft book-making workshop in 2003 in the aftermath of a deep economic crisis that left vast numbers of people unemployed, and picking waste as a means to make ends meet. Since Eloísa Cartonera, over 250 cartonera collectives have cropped up across and beyond Latin America.
Inspired by the cartonera model, and the work of Sergio and Israel in Puente Grande, we decided to trial a new 5-day prisoner publishing programme at HMP Nottingham, in response to the high turnover of prisoners in this Category B, short-sentence prison. Rather than taking a pre-established programme to the prison, we designed a loose course that one participant, Mick, later referred to as “creative writing with a twist of art”. As the week progressed, the programme took shape, guided by the participants and their interests.
Over these four days, we facilitated structured and less structured activities, from writing sense poems and rap lyrics to discussing what it would take to have a world without prisons. Unlocked is result of a process that brings together learners and teachers on a horizontal plane of co-production; a process whereby participants learn new skills and techniques, but also get the opportunity to share their existing skills and knowledge; a process that encourages self-reflection and team work; a process that fosters self-confidence and mutual trust; a process that unlocked creativity, vitality, and imagination.
“Unlocked” is a selection of poems, raps, micro-fiction, biographical snapshots, and short discursive pieces. The themes around which the texts are structured came from both real and imagined experiences from the participants’ lives inside and outside prison – burgers and curries, cells and cell toilets, gangster movies and prison radio, deportation and abuse, vulnerability and strength, faith and god, childhood trauma and neglect, family and bereavement, mothers and children, love and loss, imagination and desire, forests and silvine spirits.
More important than the end-product, though, was the participants’ experience of the process. Out of of the 13 respondents to our feedback questionnaire:
100% enjoyed the experience of painting their own covers, making their own books, and writing in prose.
90% reported that they enjoyed the poetry exercises, and that the Unlocked project brought them closer to other participants, and improved their self-confidence / self-worth.
82% found that the project provided them with the opportunity to share their stories, and to be heard; to improve their literacy and communication skills; and helped express themselves creatively.
We hope that reading Unlocked will give you a special insight into the world as these men have experienced it – a world tarnished by violence, pain, and abandonment but also one transformed by determination, faith and love. We also hope it might inspire you to try out your own community publishing programmes.
Lucy Bell and Joey Whitfield