Writer Carlo Gébler pens powerful article on the Saturday Club initiative in Hydebank Wood College

Ann Marie Robinson and I have been running the Saturday Club in Hydebank College (formerly Hydebank Wood Young Offenders’ Centre) since April 2016. Ann Marie is a ceramicist. I am a writer.
Our attendees fall in to three categories: visitors from outside who have been directed through their church to Hydebank: young men prisoners: women prisoners of all ages. Our classes mix everyone together.

We teach (that is to say we run) the Saturday Club on Saturday mornings. We start at ten. I take half the participants, read them stories, hear their writings read aloud, talk to them about writing, encourage and direct their reading and writing, and so and so forth. Ann Marie takes the other half of the participants and runs a ceramics class with them. We stop about eleven and together we have coffee and scones and cakes and pies (some made by the women prisoners). At twelve I take Ann Marie’s early morning group and she takes my group and she does another ceramics class and I do another creative writing class. We finish at one. So everyone gets a bite at every cherry.
Ceramics and Creative Writing have been taught in prisons before but traditionally the setting is circumscribed: men and women are not usually taught together and ‘inmates’ and ‘civilians’ are not usually taught together. For the purposes of The Saturday Club these norms have been dispensed with and all our participants are taught at the same time in the same place, and, furthermore, are required to socialise together when they are not being taught.
Modern British society, we are repeatedly told, is remarkable because it is free and the press are free to say what they want. Yes, we are free, it is true. However, one of the unpredicted outcomes of our much vaunted press freedom is the amount of reactionary rhetoric in our media. The targets of this rhetoric are the usual suspects, with prisoners, criminals, n’er do wells, shirkers, scallywags, et cetera being one of the principle targets of the vile rhetoric that our newspapers and other media carry nowadays.
The effects of this material are as follows. Those with no experience of the criminal justice system are conditioned to see anyone inside the criminal system as malign. And those within the system are conditioned, because they are the focus of such ferocious public hostility which is manufactured and has no basis in fact, to see the public as their enemy – or if not their enemy certainly not their friend. Modern functioning democracies shouldn’t be this dysfunctional but when it comes to the criminal justice system and imprisonment ours most definitely is.
The Saturday Club, because of its unique makeup, is a direct answer and indeed a direct remedy to this problem. The Saturday Club brings people who wouldn’t co-mingle together. And having brought them together, it obliges them to work together. It also obliges them to socialise and interact together. The results are astonishing.
All the Visitors who have attended (without exception) and we have had about twenty, have told Ann Marie and I the following: they were nervous of coming in to Hydebank, even reluctant: they were frightened of prisoners and they only came, they said, because they were asked by their churches: had they been left to their own devices they probably wouldn’t have come. And the experience, they all went on to say, completely confounded their expectations. They came knowing only what they’d read in the Daily Mail or what ever. Then they met prisoners, listened to them talk, interacted with them, and what they learnt was that what the Daily Mail had told them was completely untrue. What they discovered (hold on to your hats ladies and gentlemen) was that prisoners were not bad people, just people, and people very similar to themselves, with families and hopes and aspirations and so on and so forth, and, more importantly, people who hadn’t set out to end up in jail, people who hadn’t woken up one morning and thought, ‘You know what, I’m goin’ to rob a bank today and get caught and get sent to prison.’ They were all people, on the contrary, the visitors discovered, whose freedom of choice was circumscribed in ways that theirs were not. We all have freedom of choice, oh yes we do, but as you discover, as our visitors discovered by talking to prisoners, some of us have more freedom of choice than others depending on our social class, our income, whether our parents were alcoholics or not, what kind of school we attended, where we grew up, how we attached to our mother and a whole number of other factors.
For the students of Hydebank College the experience of educational miscegenation via the Saturday Club, has also been wholly good. Now, I want to be clear, none of those who are in Hydebank and who’ve attended have come up to us and said that the experience of mingling with visitors and civilians has changed their attitude to visitors and civilians. Of course that hasn’t happened because the Daily Mail isn’t running articles about the malfeasance of civilians. Everyone in Hydebank knows what normal people who aren’t in Hydebank are like and the reason they know what they’re like is that they come from families and estates full of normal people. For those within Hydebank the product of the commingling is not a change in attitude to straight society but a rise in confidence and social practice.
Those in Hydebank are wary of straight society. They are wary of being criticised and judged and labelled and scapegoated. They are sick of people who know nothing about them determining that they are the sum of their sentence and should be treated accordingly. What they get from the outside visitors, what they experience with the outside visitors at The Saturday Club, confounds their expectations in this regard.
The visitors, and they (the visitors) signal this, are clearly people who previously tended to see prisoners as the sum of their sentences: however, they are now, and remember they (the visitors) signal this, on the strength of having worked in Hydebank with its students, have come to realise that everything they thought before was wrong, biased and prejudicial. In other words: they have changed their minds, they have revised their opinions, they have abandoned one way of thinking and embraced another way of thinking entirely.
Now, if you are a Hydebank student, to experience others who are ready and willing to show they have changed their minds is not only a wholly good thing but frankly extraordinary. This is not typical in their experience. Think about it. Your whole life you are criticised and rebuked and occasionally punished by the criminal justice system (and the people with middle class accents who run the system) and then suddenly, on Saturday mornings, you are with people from that world (as you would see it) who aren’t doing that: but, on the contrary, they are listening, talking, engaging, socialising and working with you and they are happy as they do because they have changed their mind about people like you and you know that. The effect of that is really startling and wholly positive and as proof of that effect I would simply point to our attendance record. Men and women students in Hydebank have turned out week after week for the Saturday Club in order to experience what they experience with the visitors because they find it so benign. That’s our secret. It’s that simple. The Hydebank students like it. They want it. They benefit from it. They enjoy it. They relish it. That’s why they come. And the visitors come because they know that’s why the Hydebank students come. They come down from the wings for them. In other words, it’s a marvellous mutually beneficial virtuous circle.
We’ve been trying to rehabilitate through punishment for centuries. It hasn’t been a huge success. Education combined with a group collective communal activity like The Saturday Club with its cake eating and coffee drinking is much more like to achieve that elusive goal of rehabilitation. In our opinion it should be supported, encouraged and developed.
Ann Marie Robinson, Carlo Gébler
Saturday 3 December 2016