My dear boys... Reading inmates write for Wilde

Oscar was locked up 100 years ago. Prisoners at his old jail are putting pen to paper. By Clare Garner
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A creative writing competition is being held at Reading Gaol to celebrate the release of its most famous inmate, Oscar Wilde, after his imprisonment for homosexuality 100 years ago today.

The Victorian prison, opened in 1844, is now a remand centre and the cell which housed the fin de siecle aesthete - C.3.3. - is still in use, housing a young offender. But the room is light, with hot running water, a flush toilet, and Wilde's "thickly-muffled glass" which barred his view of the sky now affords a clear view. Whereas Wilde was denied writing materials and punished for speaking by removal of his books, today's prisoners are encouraged to read and put pen to paper.

First prize in the competition is pounds 10, the sum of money spent annually on books at the prison in Victorian times. Members of the Oscar Wilde Society will judge the entries and the award will be presented at a private ceremony in the prison later this month. All entrants will be given a certificate of merit. "We don't want anybody to be a loser," said Don Mead, editor of the society's journal, The Wildean.

Wilde's trial and conviction in 1895 for homosexual offences - or "feasting with panthers", as he put it - scandalised Victorian society. The time he served in his "numbered grave" robbed him of the "joy" of writing, he said afterwards. After chronicling his internment in The Ballad of Reading Gaol shortly after his release, he never wrote again.

Yet William Payne, Governor of what is now Her Majesty's Young Offender Institution and Remand Centre Reading, hopes that serving time will have the opposite effect on his inmates.

"They are young men who have failed at school, so we're not talking about literary geniuses, but the purpose of the award is to encourage prisoners to develop their literacy skills and achieve levels of expression which will be of use to them in life after their release," he said. "It's a fact that low levels of literacy, for example, have contributed to offending behaviour."

Wilde recorded a mind-numbing, retributive regime: "We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones/ We turned the dusty drill/ We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns/ And sweated on the mill."

Nowadays, inmates are required to spend their time in a constructive way. Each prisoner spends more than 26 hours a week doing "purposeful activity", according to Mr Payne. "The purpose of activities such as picking oakum and going on the treadmill was their purposelessness, so that you could meditate on your crimes," he said.

"I think Oscar would be surprised that there's a structured regime. The inmates are encouraged to get involved in a number of PE activities such as football, basketball, weight lifting and volleyball... He would be surprised that we have an education department that helps people with poor numeracy and literacy skills and encourages those with greater ability."

Wilde was allowed, by special favour, to spend time in his cell reading. He finished every book in the prison library several times and complained that there was no Thackeray or Dickens.

He regularly submitted requests for texts, including Liddell and Scott's Greek Lexicon, the Corpus Poetarum Latinorum, Short's Latin Dictionary, Dante's Divine Comedy and an Italian dictionary and grammar. Today the library has several thousand volumes, including novels by Terry Pratchett and Stephen King. Other facilities include a classroom, cookery room, computer room and an arts and crafts room. The Victorian exterior, so hateful to Wilde, remains, but Mr Payne hopes that life inside is no longer deserving of the lines penned by Wilde a century ago:

"The vilest deeds like poison weeds,

Bloom well in prison-air;

It is only what is good in Man

That wastes and withers there."