Mid North Coast Correctional Centre 2014
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The first steps…
In October 2014, Red Room poets Johanna Featherstone and Nick Bryant-Smith (aka Solo) travelled to the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre in Kempsey to run the centre’s first ever Unlocked project. This time we were working with medium security inmates, in the new state-of-the-art Intensive Learning Centre (ILC). The ILC gives a select group of inmates a chance to develop new skills and qualifications to help turn their lives around. Teaching staff in the centre were excited to run an Unlocked project, if slightly nervous about how these students – many of them serving longer sentences – would respond to the poetry workshops.
Unfortunately, due to a prison-wide lockdown on the first day, the workshops were shortened, leaving slightly less time for editing and reworking the poems produced in the workshop. Not to be discouraged though, the group knuckled down and produced a wealth of high quality poetry which we have collected here. The students continued to work on their poems with Melissa Lyon – the Education Officer who worked with us on the project – right up to the publication of this anthology, in dialogue with the anthology editors.
This anthology displays a mixture of tones and attitudes. As well as loving and reflective poems, there are angry and rebellious ones. In editing these anthologies, we resist the temptation to edit the poems into a completely inspiring, well-behaved collection. The focus is self-expression, reflection, and to share this experience with the group and the broader community. So while some poems attest to a desire to ‘turn the page’, tired of ending up in courts and prisons, or missing loved ones back home, others comprise frank narrative accounts of the things that got them where they are – drug use, robbery – portrayed poetically, without additional judgment. To demand that these poems be otherwise would be dishonest, and neglect the transformative power of poetry itself, regardless of the content of that expression.
Many poems address the concept of prison life itself. In ‘To the Governor’, Blain asks whether the cruelty of imprisonment is really appropriate to their crimes. ‘Patient Waiting’ by Patrick is a genuine anthem for inmates waiting to get out, offering strength without ignoring the difficulties they face. Solidarity is also shown through the group rap that the students wrote together with Nick Bryant-Smith. Acknowledging that ‘It ain’t easy for a kid growing / up on the street / He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do so / he can eat’, they encourage each other to stay strong.
Hold ya head high, puff ya chest
Make yourself heard + raise
your voice loud.
As usual there are also messages to family and lovers. Macca’s poem to his deaf mother, Ant’s and P.T.’s poems for their lovers with whom they long to be reunited. The most touching poem of all though is probably ‘Dear Sista’, by Ant, for Barden, looking for a way to deal with the pain of a departed sister. Aboriginal identity is also a common theme and source of strength for the poets. This takes on its most experimental form in Windrodyne’s clever poem constructed out of phrases from a Dunghutti-English dictionary, which forms a compelling dialogue and narrative, whilst teaching and exploring the language of the Dunghutti peoples, the traditional owners of the land on which the correctional centre stands.
One of the most important goals of the Unlocked project is to change perceptions of inmates and what they are capable of achieving, both their own perceptions, and those of the people around them. An indicator of this came from an anecdote from Melissa Lyon. She mentioned that one of the officers had been in the centre to see Nick perform for the inmates, and stopped by to say how blown away he had been, not just by the performance, but also by the work of the inmates he had read on the wall. As Melissa said to us, “that’s something coming from a custodial officer!” We hope those same people will be reading this anthology with equal astonishment, recognising the amazing potential and talent in these inmates.
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Once again we would like to thank the people and funding bodies who made the anthology possible. This Unlocked project was supported by the Australia’s Council’s Community Partnerships Board by Anne Kantor. We are extremely grateful for their support. Special thanks also go to Melissa Lyon, Correctional Education Officer in the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre, and to Ben Cork, from the Audio Visual Production Unit, who recorded the audio versions of selected poems.