Prisoner Publishing: Supporting Rehabilitation and Reform through Innovative Writing Programmes

Lead Research Organisation: University of Surrey
Department Name: Languages and Translation Studies


UK prisons are in crisis: over half of prisoners are functionally illiterate, assaults are at a record high, and reconviction rates remain at around 50%. The severely under-funded Mexican prison system faces yet more urgent problems, such as overcrowding, endemic violence and a severe lack of educational and rehabilitative opportunities for prisoners. There is a lack of funding and support for arts and education projects, even though their benefits are well proven: evidence suggests that prisoners who do not take part in education or training are three times more likely to be re-convicted than those who do.

The aim of the Prisoner Publishing project is to develop grassroots writing and book-making programmes in UK and Mexican prisons using cartonera methods - community-based initiatives involving the production of low-cost books from recycled materials - that have emerged from the most challenging Latin American environments. The proposal stems from unforeseen developments across two AHRC projects supported by Global Challenges Research Funding, Precarious Publishing and Activating the Arts for International Development, which together have demonstrated the potential of community publishing workshops to promote multidimensional social and welfare impact in communities facing high levels of precarity, exclusion, stigma and violence. In particular, it builds on the Cartoneras for Peace programme developed in Activating the Arts, which took an unforeseen turn into prison publishing when our project partners in Guadalajara ran the project in Puente Grande, the women's section of Mexico's second-largest prison complex. This programme surpassed all expectations in terms of impact and engagement: the participants reported significant psychological and social benefits; the prison administrators have supported the women to create their own sustainable publishing collective, Bote Cartonero (Cartonera in the Clink); and the initiative received news coverage from the TV station C7 Jalisco.

Through close collaboration with a range of project partners and collaborating organisations and our contacts in UK and Mexican prisons (from Prison Governors, Wellbeing teams and Education teams), we will co-design three new writing and publishing programmes to be piloted across 16 prisons (6 in the UK, 10 in Mexico). We will adapt the cartonera publishing model of rapid, low-cost, artisanal publishing to different kinds of prison: women's and men's; mixed category and Category B (short-stay); under-performing and high-performing prisons. This will allow us to develop innovative, creative, and cost-effective programmes that will each produce a cartonera book. The programmes will be replicable beyond the project thanks to a comprehensive Prisoner Publishing Pack available in both Spanish and English, aimed at prison arts practitioners.

Designed to be long-lasting, far-reaching, and sustainable, the programmes are expected to produce a significant impact for four principal groups of beneficiaries both within and beyond the life-span of project. Our primary beneficiaries are imprisoned people, especially hard-to-reach prisoners. The programmes will improve functional literacy rates in prisons through collective writing and reading activities, improve participant's self-confidence, help combat mental health problems, increase self-efficacy and agency, and enhance cultural enrichment and quality of life. Second, the programmes are designed to improve the institutional culture of prisons, enhancing their effectiveness as places of rehabilitation. Third, through our public and press engagement activities, the project will change public discourse on prisons and prisoners by promoting the creative and reflective work of participants and combating negative perceptions and stigmatising myths. Finally, the project will facilitate new creative partnerships and knowledge transfer between NGOs, civil society, government and prison authorities.

Planned Impact

"Prisoner Publishing" is targeted at four main beneficiary groups:

1. Imprisoned people, particularly hard-to-reach prisoners

The proposed workshops use empowering, participative methodologies, meaning they serve far more than a didactic function for participants. Just as the women who participated in the Puente Grande Cartonera project reported (see CFS), prison publishing programmes produce personal transformation and community building in the most challenging contexts. The programmes encourage respectful dialogue even in the presence of conflict and equip prisoners with transferrable skills from writing and reading to teamwork and public speaking. We expect the programmes:

- To improve functional literacy rates in prisons through collective writing and reading activities

- To improve participants' self-confidence as writers and give them the means to disseminate their creative work

- To combat the mental health problems that are so prevalent in prisons by facilitating the expression of needs in an atmosphere of free and open communication

- To give participants a means of self-efficacy and agency

- To enhance cultural enrichment and quality of life for participants

2. The broader prison community

The proposed programmes will improve institutional culture by strengthening arts and literacy provision through low-cost, sustainable designs. The benefits of these programmes will filter out, giving hard-to reach prisoners a voice, increasing respect for them, and making them more likely to engage in other educational opportunities. The programmes will enhance the effectiveness of prisons as places of rehabilitation and change organisational culture. The pilot projects will be used to develop a pack that will allow the model to be easily rolled out in other prisons. This will be supplemented by workshops for prison staff, all aimed at increasing understanding of the value of writing and publishing programmes for prisoners.

3. The general public

The project will change public discourse on prisons and prisoners by promoting the literary and artistic work of prisoners, to combat negative perceptions and stigmatising myths. This impact will be achieved through the following media strategy, geared towards providing new angles on old stories of crime through the human stories from the programmes:

- Use of press releases and existing contacts to engage the local press and broadcasting agencies (e.g. the BBC's local TV news programmes) with the book launches in each prison.

- Pitching articles to high-profile newspapers (UK - The Guardian, The Times and New Statesman and New Internationalist; Mexico - La Jornada, Reforma and El Debate).

- Contacting radio broadcasters in the UK, with a focus on Radio 3's Free Thinking and Radio 4's Woman's Hour, Broadcasting House and Start the Week.

- Creating a Prison Publishing Facebook page and Twitter feed with regular project updates.

4. Policy

In gaining the financial and policy support of the Mexican Cultural Ministry to support the Prisoner Publishing project, the researchers have already achieved policy change: it is the first time Jalisco's Ministry of Culture has supported an arts-based initiative for prisoners. In the UK, the project will offer a new art-based model capable of contributing towards the delivery of the Ministry of Justice's main strategic priority: "A prison and probation service that reforms offenders". In particular, we will contribute to an evidence base that is lacking yet important for developing new policies for prison reform, as identified by the Ministry of Justice itself in its "Areas of Research Interest" document: "our understanding of what works to reduce reoffending tends to be high level, with less understanding of what approaches might work best with different types of offender" (2018).


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