Creative Writer Sheree Mack and historian John Saddler worked with three groups of prisoners within three North East prisons; HMP Frankland, HMP Durham and HMPYOI Low Newton, over the course of twelve sessions.
Prisoners often do not have access to heritage while inside prison, and will often not have visited many heritage venues in their lives. Beyond the Borders was an opportunity for Dilly Arts to help participants explore what heritage is – and can be – and show how they can access and understand heritage, even while inside prison. Beyond the Borders reinforces the message that heritage and its venues are for everyone, including our prison community. With the support of Sheree and John, participants developed a variety of new skills, from research and investigative skills, through numeracy and literacy to collation of historical data, interpretation and presentation. Each fictional character is based on historical information drawn from the surviving records and materials within Hexham Gaol.
Creative writer Sheree Mack gives us an insight into her experiences of working with the prisoners to create our Beyond the Borders characters.
It was a cold grey December morning, when we first met all together as a team. I’m not sure if it was colder inside or outside as those old stone walls of Hexham Old Gaol held tight to their cold and history. But there was good cheer around the table as finally this well planned out project was beginning. I was excited to be part of it.
I’ve always enjoyed working in prisons because the participants really appreciated the opportunity to take part in different projects. I love that some of them find that they have hidden talents from taking part and getting involved in new things. This project in particle interested me as I could see clear parallels between the historial and contemporary lives. That said though, in answer to the question – what do you envision doing within the project? I could not answer.
You see I am the creative writer attached to the project, the very heart of the project. But did I have any idea what I was going to do with the participants in the three prisons? No I did not. Because the creative process relies a lot on practice and magic.I worked closely with John, the historian. Each week, He would present a different part of the Border Reivers’ history. From this I would devise activities that would foster some kind of relation between the participants and this history. Something they could relate to, and jump off from into creating something themselves. Some weeks, we would improvise and run with what the participants had taken a fancy to, such as the week we spent exploring the uses of different herbs and superstitions within the women’s prison.
The best week in all the three prisons, and I’m making the judgement based on the participants engaging and creating from the heart, was when I shared some of my writing about my family and history. I showed my vulnerability and the participants respected that, made a connection and were willing to go that extra mile in expressing themselves through the characters they produced.
So each prison, each different in their own way, produced a character who is part of the exhibition at Hexham Old Gaol but these animated characters are only a small proportion of the writing and artwork they completed. From my 12 session in each of the prisons, I would say that the participants were actively engaged with the project and saw it an opportunity to reach from inside across the barriers to the outside.
Why do you think there is a strong nature, outdoor motif running throughout each of the characters’ monologues? Because the people who created them dream of being free.
A selection of writing created during our workshops by the women of Low Newton Prison
The helmet is made of metal.
It feels cold and heavy.
It belonged to my husband.
I remember my husband leave to go
to battle, watching the back
of the helmet walking to
the unknown. I felt pride,
dread, fright and love all
at the same time.
The armour is metal. It’s cold steel.
I wear it fighting for my family.
In battle I protect my son
ass he was fighting too.
We have no choice. I feel
the adrenaline rush and dread.
The object is a jacket or jake.
It is made out of fabric. Cotton
inside and a coarse fabric
on the outside.
It feels like a carpet texture,
rough to feel, heavy
It belongs to me as I am a medic
on the battlefield.
It relates to me because
I made this to protect me
on the frontline. To keep me
safe and warm.
I feel terrified and worried.
Am I going to survive?
This is my father’s helmet.
It is big and made of steel
and feels warm.
It belonged to my father’s father.
The last time I saw my father
was when he rode off to battle
wearing his helmet.
I felt proud and scared.
I was afraid I would never
see him again. I love
my father so much.
Will I ever see him again?
The object is a jakke.
It is made of warm, thick, padded
material with a hard worn thread.
It doesn’t feel like a protector
but a comforter.
This jakke belonged to my brother.
Out on the bloodied field it was
my job to remove the clothing
from the dead. I will never forget
the hurt and sinking feeling
on recognising the body lying
before me in being my own flesh
and blood. Peeling back the layers
with tears rolling down my face,
the jakke still warm my brother gone.
Dark, rough leather, now rough
and hacked in battle. It’s thick
and wadded to protect my boy,
heavy with his sweat and blood.
The canvas inside that touched
his skin, rough and coarse.
How many times did I darn
and stitch this? My son, the brave
soldier, strong and proud, my little
boy, beautiful and sweet. Now it’s
the only thing I have of him, salvaged
from the field of battle.
It felt weird putting it on but comfortable
nonetheless. It belongs to me, so I know every
inch of it. I have been into battle many times
as a Reiver. We are a non-feudal family
but we fight together. My first battle, I fought
alongside my brothers and my parents.
Normally, I wouldn’t be allowed to fight.
I am youngish. But now I am faster and
fiercer. I am quicker with a sword than
I am with my feet.
my mother always said. Looking at where
I am now and what I have gone through
can I really believe this superstition?
Yes, because where there has been bad,
there has also been good and it is choices,
decisions and positivity that brings luck our way.
My husband does wrong and we all take the brunt.
Imprisonment, away from loved ones and the stigma
which comes attached. Looking on the bright side,
we still have one another, we can still take a breath
and the future is still ahead. Seeing this black cat
across my path before all this happened to me.
Did I allow it to bring my good luck or bad luck?
We will just have to wait and see. You make
your own choices in life and choose your own fate.
The right path, the wrong path is what makes us
who we are today.
on the morning before we went to steal
the cattle. I said to the fellows that we should
turn back. The fellows just laughed at me.
Then we got caught and thrown into jail
They’ not laughing so much now.