Book review; Behind the Lines by Michael Crowley
Behind the Lines; Creative Writing with Offenders and People at Risk – Michael Crowley Waterside Press
There is a treasure in the heart of every person if only you can find it (Winston Churchill)
Micheal Crowley has been working with young offenders and people at risk for 15 years. This book he says; “is a book about getting people to write and writing with them, and what that teaches us both.” Written for professionals who work with offenders and people at risk, it shows the process of oral and writing warm ups from writing exercises through to text and from rehearsal through to performance.
He has worked with teenagers in a variety of settings in the education service, the criminal justice system and as a writer. He was interested in writing drama and used some of the characters and scenarios he came across in his job as an education worker. It was when he became a youth offending officer that ; “I decided I wanted to use young peoples’ writing to get to know the individual under my supervision, and as ambitious as it might seem, as a basis for making the changes I was supposed to.” He is now a writer in residence at a Youth Offenders Institution which is funded through the Writers in Prison Network.
Mike explains how the book started. He was working with a girl from a violent background and her response to his role as a YOT officer was to present him with a poem. As he says; “Giving me the poem was the greater act of trust. So I decided to ask for more and from other youngsters.” This led to him producing four collections of young people’s writing at the YOT and “many of the pieces, the best pieces are monologues in the voices of imaginary and detailed characters, a gestation,a gender away”.
It is not just a practice book, running through it is a discourse about the prison system and the way in which this society criminalises, largely poor, largely working class young people from many backgrounds. Michael challenges the very negative stereotypes that domainate about these young people and in this book and through his work makes us, the person outside the criminal justice system, listen to their voices. “I will often begin a session by asking “Why are you in jail? Many will instinctively reach back years into their upbringing…The current swing away from social determinism towards individual responsibility does not have to be at the cost of insight…there can be little possibility of a different future without it”.
Michael is not unaware of his role in the prison system; “I am into my fifth year now and, like many of the young men I see come and go, I’m convinced it will definitely be my last stretch”. And the future for the valuable work he does is not certain as public spending cuts bite and there is less opportunity for working with individuals and small group work with offenders. Funding for the Writers in Prisons network has been cut and there is now a campaign to continue its work.
The riots of 2011 were not a surprise to many people working with young people. Michael believes that “working or living in a jail you require a sense of an ever increasing volume of young men habituated to crime, schooled in a dog eat dog Britain”.
In his work with the young people jailed for taking part in the riots he says that they are easier to work with and better educated. And their reason for being in the riots; “as a form of anarchic protest and went along out of fascination, to take photos or otherwise support some kind of inchoate rebellion.” He doesnt believe that their motives were purely politicial but that the riots could have happened under any government at any time over the last years.
Michael believes that his work can have many results. By encouraging young people to write it can “be a means to address not only literacy but therapeutic needs, moral reasoning,offence-focussed thinking and all at the same time.”
He feels that creative writing should be encouraged and built upon to address offending.
In Beyond the Lines he addresses some of the major problems affecting our society particularly as the government chooses to cut the public services and gets all of us to pay for the criminality of the bankers.
Read Michael’s new poetry book Close to Home published by prolebooks
Contact Michael via his website
His new play The Cell, catch at the 24/7 Theatre Festival on 27 July at 6pm and it then goes to The Unity Theatre Liverpool for 4th and 5th September.