Not Shut Up charity offers prison inmates a path out of their cells and into the arts world

It's a long way from a jail cell to the great theatres and galleries of London. But one charity is helping creative inmates and ex-offenders make the break. Here, an artist, a playwright and an actor - all former offenders - share their stories

Tim Bouquet
Friday 10 April 2015 15:16 BST
Standing, from left: Dean Stalham; Chris Wilson. Seated, from left: Not Shut Up's Sarah Leipciger; the charity's managing editor Marek Kazmierski; Fabian Spencer
Standing, from left: Dean Stalham; Chris Wilson. Seated, from left: Not Shut Up's Sarah Leipciger; the charity's managing editor Marek Kazmierski; Fabian Spencer

As a criminal, Dean Stalham was no stranger to court; but on a wet day in February, former prisoner Nx3669 stepped out in front of an audience, not a jury, at the Royal Court Theatre in London to introduce his play, The Barred, to be performed for the first time by his new theatre company of fellow former criminals.

Neither play nor players could have been created without the help of a small but vital charity, Not Shut Up, which, in its decade of existence, has promoted and published creative writing, paintings and drawings generated by the "unfree" in prisons, detention centres and other secure institutions, as well as work produced by former inmates.

Not Shut Up receives no public funding and relies entirely on philanthropic support. Its quarterly magazine of the same name circulates to around 300 establishments nationwide with 50,000 readers – and has inspired hundreds like Stalham to take up the pen.

The charity's managing editor, Marek Kazmierski – a novelist, publisher and translator – remembers vividly his first day teaching English as a second language to young offenders at Feltham Prison in 2003, where he subsequently became a governor. "I was taken to a classroom with a dozen young men aged 18 to 21 and given a cupboard of well-thumbed books. I was given no brief, no walk around the prison, no induction about security. I was simply dumped there and expected to keep these young men occupied for three-and-a-half hours.

"To take people who've been excluded from education or who have excluded themselves, then deny them their liberty and expect them to go to a classroom and sit there and behave and do qualifications is setting them up to fail.

"Prisons are like army camps; uniforms not clothes, ranks not roles, orders not options," Kazmierski adds, pleased with the grit and realism unfolding from Stalham's pen via the six actors at the Royal Court. The Barred tells the story of Daniel, wrongly convicted at the hands of his own father and daughter. Daniel – like Dean – grew up on a crime-ridden council estate and we see the grinding routines and hypocrisy common in prisons through his eyes.

The Not Shut Up magazine is portrayed as a beacon in a bleak prison system described vividly in Stalham's play. "We know that in prisons every copy is read by five inmates," Kazmierski says. "As with Dean, we want to inspire not just creativity, but confidence in creativity. So many of our writers never dreamt of being successful in what they do. Something as bright and colourful as Not Shut Up in our prisons – which are languishing in the 19th century, with no internet access to literature – sends out a positive message about the power of creative thinking."

Sarah Leipeiger of 'Not Shut Up' and Marek Kazmierski, the charity's managing editor

Not Shut Up acknowledges that Britain's jails – hamstrung by overcrowding, chronic understaffing, drugs, self-harming and violence – will not be dragged into the 21st century by creative-writing classes alone, even if Kazmierski's poetry sessions at Wandsworth are oversubscribed and Stalham is working with dyslexics in the same jail. In England and Wales, we imprison more people than any other nation in Western Europe, at a rate of 148 per 100,000 head of population. In Germany, the figure is 78. The prison population of around 85,700 is increasing annually by up to two per cent, swelled by remand prisoners and sex offenders. Yet those figures will not deter the charity, nor those who work for it.

The London-based Canadian novelist Sarah Leipciger, a Not Shut Up trustee, has taught k creative writing in prisons for 12 years and spends a day a week in Wandsworth. With 1,877 inmates, it is one of the largest prisons in Western Europe. "When I started, it was scary. There was a lot of banter," she says. "But now I'm 39, a mother of three, and a bit older than a lot of them. Being foreign, an outsider, helps. They all think I'm Australian!

"Through workshops of six to nine, I get them writing about themselves and their real lives – because in prison it's all about them as prisoners, their crimes, their trials and how they are being hard done by. I want them to break free, leave the four walls. We switch to fiction and they learn how they can draw from their own experiences but are in complete control of character, plot and events. It's not something they have experienced before. Seeing their names in print in Not Shut Up is also a huge deal."

Kazmierski agrees. "For most prisoners, prestige is a rare commodity." Now 41, he grew up in Warsaw until he was 12. Then, in 1985, his mother, an economist and Solidarity activist, and his younger sister "managed to get passports through bribery and all manner of means" and escaped Communist Poland to join his father, a steelworker, in London, where he had fled when martial law had been imposed in 1981. Granted asylum in 1988, Kazmierski won a Decibel Penguin Prize in 2007 – awarded to non-fiction personal accounts of the experience of immigration.

Not Shut Up works with 22 partner organisations, including the Koestler Trust, the Royal Court Theatre and London Shakespeare Workout, to deliver theatre, creative writing, photography and art exhibitions and readings by the unfree. Equally importantly, it is also trying to slow down the "revolving door" that sees up to 73 per cent of prisoners reconvicted within one year of release. It has set up the Not Shut Up Academy, which works with and publishes writers and artists post-prison, easing them into their new lives. So far, it has seven members. None has reoffended.

They include Stalham – jailed for trying to sell a Warhol print of Marilyn Monroe worth £10m; writer and painter Chris Wilson, whose violent early life of crime-fuelled drug addiction landed him in some of America's most notorious maximum-security prisons; and Fabian Spencer, playwright, director, actor and rapper, who, between the ages of 14 and 31, was in prison 10 times for various offences until he discovered Shakespeare in Brixton. Through Not Shut Up, they all work with current inmates and fellow ex-prisoners – and on these pages, they tell their stories…

'Barred' is next showing at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, as part of the Ambition Festival on 23 July, then in August at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green, as part of Youth Take Over Month. For more about the charity: notshutup.org

Dean Stalham, playwright and artist, 51

Stalham (pictured above) served five-and-a-half years in some of Britain's toughest prisons, including Wandsworth, Brixton, Pentonville and Highpoint. Novelist Will Self says his work 'gives people who have lost their way their dignity back, enabling them to move forward'

"I first came across Not Shut Up, the magazine, in the library at Wandsworth, and was impressed by the creative writing and art it featured. I started writing and had four scenes of my first play performed in Wandsworth. When I got out in 2006, I said, 'I'm gonna be a writer.' My ex-missus laughed. 'Forget it,' she said. 'You're a gangster from Cricklewood.'

"I set up a couple of art groups for ex-offenders and, through the Not Shut Up Academy, I've created the Debarred Theatre Company to give those with experience of the judicial system – former prisoners, police officers, lawyers – the chance to write and perform plays.

"The goal is to provide at least 24 weeks of sustainable income a year to its cast and crew. Our launch play, The Barred, which Not Shut Up founder Marek Kazmierski and the Academy inspired me to write, is tough but not without comedy. It's written from the inside and takes a poke at how prisons are run. For example, prisoners get £7.50 for sweeping the wing, but only £5 if they go to education classes. That extra £2.50 represents a tin of tuna and three extra Mars bars –currency inside – so there's no competition.

"I have written and staged six plays, but The Barred is the first about prison. At the Royal Court we had an audience of former offenders, ex-cops, and actors like Sheila Hancock, who has been hugely supportive, as has the Garrick Club. The response was great. I'm now talking to several London theatres about a three-week run. I feel my life has a good direction and that creative arts help rehabilitation. Even so, I've been turned down for 250 jobs in two years. The bad tag sticks. Sometimes I feel like I'm still prisoner Nx3669."

Chris Wilson, writer and painter, 53

Wilson (pictured above) served a sentence in the US for a grand theft and conspiracy felony, followed by sentences for a series of parole violations, until his deportation back to the UK in 1998. He came across Not Shut Up in 2013 when he met Marek Kazmierski at an art show in Brixton

"Eighty per cent of prisoners in the US are in for drug- or alcohol-related crimes. I was one of them. Six years in all, starting in Dallas when I was 17. I'd gone to San Francisco to be in a band – then the drugs and the alcohol came in. The instruments went to the pawnshop and I went on a journey way down the rabbit hole. It's been even harder coming back.

"When I was deported, I did three years in rehab in London, which made it more than a decade spent in institutions. I had a lot of help coming back, but the seed for change is curiosity. I discovered painting in rehab and went to an interview at Chelsea College of Arts. I brought a big roll of canvas I had done. They rolled it out and said, 'Some people would find your art contentious,' and I said, 'Define contentious,' and the guy spat back, 'I hoped you would.' They took me in and I got a First with Distinction in painting.

"Since then, Not Shut Up has given me the opportunity and confidence to stage exhibitions and has published a hand-made book of my art – but writing is increasingly important to me.

"My first book, Horse Latitudes, is based on my prison years and is illustrated with 16 paintings. It was inspired by Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, which I read when I was in California Rehabilitation Center 18 years ago. My aim was to show what it's like for 200 men in this huge tank, triple-bunks, people kipping on the floor.

"I'm writing a film treatment for it and have completed a collection of short stories called Glue Ponies. I like to stay busy. I like projects. I want broken people to heal and to have choices."

Fabian Spencer, writer, actor, director, producer, 42

From the age of 14, Spencer (pictured above) served a number of sentences for offences such as assault and driving while disqualified, which took him from detention centres to Feltham Young Offenders Institution and then to adult prisons at Wandsworth, Belmarsh and finally Brixton. He spent seven months at the latter on remand for an armed robbery he did not commit – never facing trial, but losing his job as a charity fundraiser nonetheless

"I encountered Shakespeare when I was approached at Brixton in 2004 by Dr Bruce Wall of the London Shakespeare Workout. Bruce brought [the actors] Mark Rylance and Janet Suzman to do workshops with us and I began to understand and love Shakespeare. A lot of the inmates called me Juliet; they thought Shakespeare and writing was pansy. Not Shut Up gives the lie to that.

"I acted in two productions in Brixton with my fellow inmate Darren Raymond. Shakespeare and Sinatra mixed A Winter's Tale with Sinatra standards. Then we wrote Blacking Iago; I played Iago to Darren's Othello. It was filmed by the BBC's The Culture Show.

"After I was released in 2005, when all charges against me were dismissed, we took Blacking Iago on a 48-date tour. Then we did two plays, HMP Macbeth and Cracking the Whip, at the Intermission Theatre in Knightsbridge, where Darren is now artistic director. Then I met Dean Stalham and discovered Not Shut Up.

"I produced and led 80 hours of rehearsals for The Barred. A theatre company that includes ex-offenders is important, as it can lead them away from reoffending.

"Some can hack prison; I couldn't. Acting and writing was my way out. Last year I completed a degree in drama and applied theatre. All I had on paper before was a criminal record. Now my kids think of me as somebody to look up to."

All portraits by Anna Huix

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