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Unlocked poetry

It’s art that’ll set you free, writes Lucia Osborne-Crowley

Paul Ellis in prison Cartoon: McEwen
Paul Ellis in prison
Cartoon: Rose McEwen


When the pen hits paper
When the words start to pass
When the poetry starts to happen
The day will slowly begin.

Over the past four years, the Red Room poetry company has joined forces with members of the NSW Correctional Services team to create ‘Unlocked’, a collaborative poetry program for NSW prisoners. The program was created as a means of encouraging self-exploration amongst prisoners through creative expression, teaching inmates to express themselves poetically and, in so doing, connect with and form a deeper understanding of their emotions and relationships, past and present.

The workshops have made a profound impact on the outlooks of many NSW prisoners. Daragh McCallum, a literacy teacher at the Mannus Correctional Centre, said that “several inmates stated that they had no idea poetry was so diverse and attainable,” alluding to the inmates’ delight upon discovering that the world of literary expression was open to them as a means of self-discovery and communication.

As another means of helping inmates explore and appreciate poetic creativity, Sydney rapper Nick Bryant-Smith, AKA Solo of hip hop outfit Horrorshow, connected with inmates through his own poetry in the form of rap music and taught the inmates how to compose their own hip hop verses. Hip hop music can serve as a first point of contact with poetry for many people, making this part of the project an important contribution to the prisoners’ creative development. Nick’s work with the inmates culminated in the creation of a collaborative rap song, a professional recording of which is forthcoming.

As well as this collaborative effort, the Unlocked project has produced a number of written anthologies that showcase the inmates’ literary works. The collection of works express an impressive array of emotions and experiences – ranging from sombre, to wistful, to hopeful and back again – and speak to an incredible development of self-understanding. McCallum observed that “it was uplifting to see the pride participants took in sharing their work.”

Claire Shume, literacy teacher at the John Morony Correctional Centre, told Honi that the program has encouraged inmates to “rise above their immediate circumstances and see beyond the fence, to unlock their minds and creativity.” While these accolades certainly confirm the success of the project, the poetic voices of the participants themselves speak far louder, as they end hopeful poems with sentiments such as “just for a moment, I want for nothing,” and descriptions such as “a young touched prisoner…searching and determined, to confront his dangers – to be free.”