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Koestler Trust, 2015

From the inside, without names

The Koestler Trust has been awarding, exhibiting and selling artworks by offenders, detainees and secure patients for over 50 years. Participants are engaged in a wide range of artforms including fine arts design, music, writing and film. The Koestler Awards generate thousands of entries from across the criminal justice system and secure settings. This small pamphlet was produced in collaboration with STIR, a magazine featuring work by prisoners in Scotland, and edited by a team in HMP Shotts.

The poems, short stories and other excerpts of writing here are all published anonymously. The only identifier at the end of each piece is the name of the prison the writing came from. It’s as though that prison is the author’s only identity or even, perhaps, as though the institution itself has produced the writing.

In the age of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, it’s unusual to read something and not immediately know who the writer is, or at least who they want you to think they are. So when we read a passage about childhood memories of life on the road (‘My Childhood’) from HMP Castle Huntly, or a poem about a much loved mother (‘My Wee Maw’) from HMP Shotts, the effect is even more piercing because we have no name to google or reference, no clue as to the author’s gender, age, where they comes from — all things that names can suggest or conjure. Instead, the writing stands up and says what it has to say.

Many years ago, I worked with male life prisoners in HMP Shepton Mallet and found the experience intense and affecting. For the prisoners who came to the workshops, finding the right words for poems and stories was a matter of great urgency. In that setting, it was all that mattered.

Institutions often deprive people of their sense of individuality, but the anonymous writers behind each piece in this anthology assume a different kind of identity and individuality through the effect their writing has on the reader.

Clare Best