Poems from prison
This year, prison arts charity the Koestler Trust has published the first in a new biannual series of prison poetry anthologies, Koestler Voices: New Poetry from Prisons. The poems are selected from winning entries to the Koestler Trust’s annual competitions, all written by people who are or have been detained in the UK’s criminal justice system. Volume One is edited by Kate Potts and has a foreword from Benjamin Zephaniah. The two poems featured here are from this collection.
Between 1993 and 2017 the prison population in England and Wales more than doubled, rising from 41,561 to 86,256. Survivors of childhood abuse and those with drug problems and mental health issues are significantly overrepresented in the prison population. And incarceration figures reflect discrimination as well as deprivation: a 2016 government report found that black, Asian and minority ethnic people are more likely to be sentenced to prison for some crimes, such as driving, public order and drug offences. There have also been drastic cuts to spending on the prison and probation service, and record-high levels of self-harm incidents, and attacks on both staff and fellow prisoners. At such a time creative work that emerges from and responds to the UK prison system seems more vital than ever.
Though fantastically varied in terms of style and subject-matter, the poems in Koestler Voices are shaped by the constraints of time and space imposed by prison life. Constraints are a consideration of all poetry: the white space of the page, the rhythm and time of the line, the limitations of language itself. But prison poetry tends to concern itself with the regaining of power, the figurative breaking out of or transcendence of physical incarceration. As Koestler anthology poet Stuart explains, ‘I wrote to get out of the state of mind of being in prison’.