York PEN’s Official Launch: Prison Fictions and Writing Imprisonment, 21st June.

3pm The Bowland Auditorium, Berrick Saul Building, 21st June 2012

5.30pm Ticketed Event Bowland Lecture Theatre. Anyone with tickets will be entered into a draw to win a signed copy of a book by each author.

Tickets available at: http://prisonfictions.eventbrite.co.uk

Organised by the Prison Fictions & Human Rights Project

Funded by The University of York’s Research Led Project and Rapid Response Fund


3pm WELCOME by Dr Michelle Kelly & Dr Claire Westall

Chairs: Claire Westall & Michelle Kelly
* Film Screening of the ‘Inspiring Change Prison Project’
* Kate Hendry, Motherwell College and HMP Shotts, explains the ‘Inspiring Change Project’
* Lynda Radley, playwright, explains her experience of working with female prisoners in HMP Greenock, Scotland, as part of the Inspiring Change Project to create a theatrical production entitled ‘A Woman’s Place’.

* York PEN, the new student group will announce themselves – in style!
* Robert Sharp, Head of Campaigns and Communications, English PEN



Chair: Dr Claire Westall
* Professor David Wilson, Birmingham City University, will be speaking about his experiences as a prison governor and his academic work on how prison is represented in popular culture and the media.
* Erwin James, writers and guardian columnist, will be speaking about his writing on imprisonment and the tensions between autobiography and the need to fictionalise.

6.30pm BREAK

Introduction by Michelle Kelly and Robert Sharp, English PEN
GILLIAN SLOVO, President of English PEN, will speak about two divergent but overlapping texts about imprisonment – 117 Days, her mother’s account of detention without trial in South Africa, and a new Guantanamo memoir she is currently writing.



Kate Hendry, of Motherwell College, teaches Creative Writing at HMP Shotts. She has also worked in Greenock and Barlinnie prisons where she has edited and published prisoners’ writing and art work. She has compiled, in collaboration with prisoners, an anthology of contemporary Scottish poetry for prison reading groups, The Poem Goes to Prison (Edinburgh: Scottish Poetry Library, 2010). Her paper evaluating the impact of prison reading groups on prisoners’ literacy practices was published last year in the RaPAL Journal (vol 75 autumn/winter). This year she is setting up, with Lottery funding, a new national arts magazine for prisons to showcase prisoners’ creative work. Her own poetry and fiction has been published widely and can be found in Harpers, New Writing Scotland, the Bridport Prize anthology 2009, Mslexia, The Rialto and Kin: Scottish Poems about Family (Edinburgh: Polygon 2009).

Lynda Radley is an award-winning playwright. She is originally from Cork but lives and works in Scotland. Lynda has worked for companies such as the Traverse Theatre, Dundee Rep and the National Theatre of Scotland. Her work has been seen on stages from Glasgow to Cork, and from Amsterdam to Australia. In 2010, Lynda worked with female prisoners at HMP Greenock as part of the Inspiring Change Project. This project was overseen by The Citizens’ Theatre in conjunction with Motherwell College and Creative Scotland. Lynda’s play The Art of Swimming was shortlisted for the Meyer-Whitworth award and for a Total Theatre Award. Lynda has been nominated for a PPI Irish radio award and twice for an Irish Times Theatre award for new writing. Most recently, she won a Scotsman Fringe First for her play Futureproof. Her plays are published by Nick Hern. Berlin Love Tour – a walking tour of Berlin that can take place in any city – was recently seen at Birmingham Rep and will soon be performed at Cork Midsummer Festival. It is produced by Playgroup. http://www.lyndaradley.com

David Wilson is Professor of Criminology and the Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. Prior to taking up an academic appointment in 1997, David was a Prison Governor and at 29 became the youngest governing governor in England. He worked at Grendon, Wormwood Scrubs and at Woodhill in Milton Keynes – where he designed and ran the two units for the 12 most violent prisoners in the country, which brought him into contact with virtually every recent serial killer. David regularly appears in the print and broadcast media as a commentator and presenter.

Erwin James Monahan embarked on a programme of part-time education in prison and gained an Open University arts degree. He developed an interest in writing and his first article for a national newspaper, The Independent, appeared in 1994. In 1995 he won first prize in the annual Koestler Awards for prose. His first article in The Guardian newspaper appeared in 1998 and he began writing a regular column for the paper entitled A Life Inside in 2000. The columns were the first of their kind in the history of British journalism and to this day James remains a Guardian columnist and contributor. A collection of his columns, A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook, was published in 2003. A follow up, The Home Stretch: From Prison to Parole, was published in 2005. A year after his release from prison in 2004 James became a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and in September 2009 he became a trustee of the Alternatives to Violence Project Britain. He is a patron of the charity CREATE, an organisation that promotes the arts and creative activities among marginalized groups. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (FRSA) and an Honorary Master of the Open University.

Gillian Slovo is the South African born author of twelve novels and her best selling family memoir Every Secret Thing. Her novel Red Dust won the RFI Temoin du Monde prize in France, and was made into a feature film starring Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ice Road was short listed for Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize. She is a recipient of an Amnesty Media Award and co-compiler of the Tricycle Theatre production Guantanamo-Honour Bound to Defend Freedom which she assembled, from spoken evidence, for the Tricycle’s ‘Women, Power and Politics’ season. Her play The Riots was put on in 2011 in the Tricycle and Tottenham’s Bernie Grant Arts Centre. Gillian was elected the 25th President of English PEN in 2010, and her twelfth novel, An Honourable Man, was published in January 2012.

Books for sale at the event:
Radley’s Futureproof; Erwin James’ A Life Inside and The Home Stretch; David Wilson’s Serial Killers: Hunting Britons and their Victims; and Gillian Slovo’s Every secret thing, Red Dust, Guantanamo, The Riots and An Honourable Man.

Poster: Photography by Francesca Pollard, Design by the Prison Fictions and Human Rights Marketing Group.

The Politics of Free Speech

Following the Jenny Tonge event, some members of York PEN have been engaged in heated discussion and debate about the organisation and write up of the talk. It is felt that the context of the event significantly overshadowed the impact of its content, and this has become a point of contention worthy of analysis. 

Although we were aware that Tonge had made controversial comments preceding our invitation, we had not anticipated the controversy that holding this event would provoke both for and within our own institution. This was particularly unexpected given that the focus of the talk was not about Israel, but rather the political response to and consequences of Tonge’s statements. The group was informed that there was a degree of external criticism regarding the University’s agreement to run this talk. Following this, a change was made to the format from an open lecture to a question and answer session, followed by a short open forum. The format change suited the time constraints of the speaker, and helped the event to remain on topic. It did, however, create some disagreement within York PEN, as it was seen by some students as contrary to the group’s focus on freedom of speech.

While providing a useful method for teasing out the views and experiences of an active politician and member of the Lords, the structural change of the talk raised interesting queries about freedom of expression within and surrounding the University as an institution. The difficulties encountered in the build up to what proved to be a calm and uneventful event point towards various complex issues, and also provide insights into the organisational processes behind public university events. Over the past week, these have sparked lively intellectual debate among the members of York PEN, which we hope will continue to be discussed on this forum. Concerns voiced so far include: 

– How much sacrifice and/or compromise are acceptable to allow a potentially difficult event to go ahead?
– To what extent should the necessity of financial backing affect a group’s autonomy in the hosting of an event?
– How far does the university have a responsibility to provide a space for potentially controversial discussions?
– How far should external criticism influence internal processes within the university?
– How does academic debate intersect with the realities of politics?

We would encourage other members of York PEN to offer their responses to these questions and any other issues or concerns raised by the event.

Political Whips and the Freedom of Speech: A Review

On the 28th of May, Baroness Jenny Tonge came to speak on the subject of “Political Whips and Freedom of Speech”, at the invitation of York PEN. This invitation followed the political ramifications of controversial statements she made during a conference at Middlesex University. Baroness Tonge resigned her Liberal Democrat whip after she was asked either to apologise for her comments about Israel, or face being de-whipped. 

As a student run group within English PEN, York PEN aims to explore and discuss issues relating to “the freedom to write and the freedom to read” and the promotion of literature and human rights in an international and domestic setting. For our first event, we were keen to interrogate the limits of freedom of speech within the domestic sphere and our own parliamentary process. We found the circumstance of Baroness Tonge’s resignation particularly interesting because it highlighted the tensions between international diplomacy and internal party politics, as well as the freedom to express personal views in a public capacity.

During the talk, Baroness Tonge discussed her career to date and offered insights into the whip system and parliamentary processes, as well as various other contemporary issues and policy. The first questions posed to the Baroness concerned the ins and outs of the parliamentary whip system. While the term (which originates from fox-hunting) contains an overt disciplinary gesture, this did not necessarily come across in Tonge’s elucidation of its contemporary function. Indeed, despite recent experiences, she was generally positive about the ongoing use of this political mechanism. She made several references to her personal belief in individual liberalism and the freedom of speech, but she also conceded that sometimes maintaining a broad party line is important, not least for upholding electorate confidence. Drawing upon examples and anecdotes from her own career, Tonge also described the weekly letter received by the Whip setting out the business at hand, and the subsequent call on MPs to attend parliament in order to vote on these issues. In particular, she explained that importance of attendance is denoted by the number of lines underlining the request, whereby one implies a fairly important but flexible matter while three denotes a crucial vote for which attendance is almost mandatory (hence the famous phrase, “three line whip”).  

Other key areas of discussion during the session included: her experience of the contrasts and tensions between local and national politics; the ‘politics’ of party politics and her dissatisfaction with career-oriented politicians; debate regarding the recent health bill and her own disagreement with the changes; the extension of Heathrow and the response from her Richmond constituency; the question of prisoners’ right to vote; disagreement over reforming the House of Lords and Baroness Tonge’s understanding of the tension between her negative view of unelected chambers and her recent acceptance of life peerage; and the difficulties involved in establishing the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition so quickly, her concerns about how well this is working and how she feels the coalition has changed the Liberal Democrat party.

The talk raised interesting questions about the political whip system within a Coalition government:

        Is it possible to work conflicting policy and ideology into a single party line, and is this a useful, necessary mode of politics, or does it restrict political freedom and debate?

        How is freedom of speech and political opinion affected by the two-house system, and how might parliamentary processes need to change if the House of Lords were to be reformed?

        Is there a discrepancy between an academic approach to freedom of speech within British parliament, and its perception by those who work in this political space?

We would encourage and look forward to any comments or further questions about the whip system and freedom of speech in Westminster.

Edit: In a previous version of this article, the author stated that Jenny Tonge resigned as Lib Dem whip, when in fact she resigned from the Lib Dem party.