The Monthly interviews Pamela Brown, Writer in Residence, Prison Arts Foundation – Part 1

Pamela Brown was one of Prison Arts Foundation’s mentors in their successful two-year mentoring programme, as discussed by Fred Caulfield, Executive Director of PAF, in his interview in this edition of the Monthly – Fred’s Interviews can be found at the links below

Interview Part 1 and Part 2

Pamela is a published writer, and works as Writer-in-Residence for Prison Arts Foundation in HMP Magilligan. She also delivers OCN accreditations, level 1, 2 & 3 Creative Writing classes through North West Regional College in Magilligan. In this interview, she shares her experiences of this role.  

Pamela also reflects on her participation in The John Hewitt Digital Festival of Literature and Ideas in August 2020, where she presented a recording of poems created by the writers in the Magilligan class.

CAP: Hi Pamela,  thanks for agreeing to speak to us. We have just interviewed Fred Caulfield about PAF, and we are going to start by asking about your experiences of working with PAF and Fred. 

PB:  Yes,  it’s been amazing working for PAF. I’ve been Writer-in-Residence in Magilligan since 2015, and I also took part in the PAF mentoring programme. It’s great working with Fred. The lovely thing about Fred is that he trusts you as an artist, he trusts what you’re doing, he trusts you know what your outcomes will be, that kind of thing, and he’s always in awe of the art that’s created, the visual art, the ceramics, the sculpture or the writing, so he really trusts the facilitator to deliver and to engage with prisoners.

CAP: How did you get involved in working for PAF?

Through The Playhouse in Derry in 2011. They were delivering OCNS under a programme called Arts Skills. They had set up some classes in Magilligan . I thought I would be there for twelve weeks and I am still there!

With classes in prison – you start to see them in relation to classes on the outside, the content is different – then you realise that twelve weeks isn’t enough. I knew that something more had to happen with the work.  So, I continued with The Playhouse until about 2015 and then the funding was cut. And it was really devastating, because we were even doing photography and other kinds of art skills, and then the PAF residency was open again, and I didn’t know about that.

There was someone who did it for a few weeks, and then he got other work, the commute just didn’t suit him, so I put myself forward. Fred and I arranged a meeting in Magilligan and took it from there.

I had to go through the interviews like anybody else, then I took up the position and soon afterwards I was also working for The North West Regional College delivering OCNS in creative writing.  It meant before COVID that I was in Magilligan 4 and a half days a week, which was great, and I feel the benefit of it, and to be able to give the accreditation to people for their writing. It works and PAF and the college have a good working relationship.

CAP: Pamela, can you tell us something about your writing groups in Magilligan?

PAF: Before COVID, there were 9 PAF students in the classes and 7 or 8 in the college classes. The PAF creative writing group includes a core group of longer-term prisoners.

There is a high turnover, because people are mostly sent here to finish off long sentences, but even if someone is only with us for a few weeks, they can still make a valuable contribution and even publish in our in-house writing magazine, Time In.

CAP: Please tell us about Time In.

PB: This is a magazine produced by Magilligan writers. There are two issues published each year. The cover illustration is created by someone from the art class. The magazine contents include a letters page, news, film reviews, a nature watch page, news of successes in arts competitions, examples of writers’ and artists’ work, arts events, crosswords and interviews.  

CAP: That’s a wide range of articles.

PB: Yes, this offers opportunities for writers to develop their expertise in a variety of writing forms. And we often have a feature by a guest writer. The writer Jimmy Santiago Baca is going to write a feature for our Winter edition. I am so thrilled to have him doing this.

Jimmy Santiago Baca is a writer from New Mexico who had a very difficult start in life. He spent five years in prison. When he went in, his literacy skills weren’t great, but he learned to read and write in prison and began writing poetry. He has written over 21 books, including stories, poetry and a memoir.

He has now been delivering writing workshops in prisons, libraries, and universities across the United States for more than 30 years. In 2004 he launched Cedar Tree, a literary non-profit designed to provide writing workshops, training, and outreach programs for at-risk youth, prisoners and ex-prisoners, and disadvantaged communities. 

There is a fantastic documentary about him, A place to Stand. You can watch it at the link below.


CAP: Pamela, from what you have shared with us so far, it sounds as if you have a profound belief in the impact of the arts in prisons.

PB: Yes, I always think if you took the art out of prison, it would really be a 1984 Orwellian world. Art gives colour through expression. 

I see the arts as transformative. I’ve seen that with the  writing classes in the prisons, with positive behavioural changes in people. Even prison staff will tell you that they have seen changes with prisoners who engage with the Prison Arts classes, and they tend to stay longer in the education programme.   

It’s also amazing how the arts can teach literacy. For many people the drilling method doesn’t work – creativity is innovative in how it can teach skills. A large part of the population will learn more easily through creativity, and want to learn that way.

In many ways I believe that to create fewer victims, you have to engage with prisoners; that’s the only way it will really work.  Up to 55% of prisoners reoffend: it’s a high proportion.  The only way to reduce this it to educate prisoners and give them something that they can do outside, not only the arts, but even hands-on skills such as tiling, carpentry, welding, barbering, so they can get employment or self-employment when they are released.

CAP: Pamela, you have had a wide range of experience as a writing facilitator, both in the criminal justice system and outside it. Can you share some of your ideas about what makes a good writing facilitator in any context?

PB: I think that a good facilitator in a writing class leave themselves at the door.  You don’t want your voice in your student’s writing.  You can guide them with your skills, your experience and your knowledge. You need a passion for what is being created and a curiosity for what is going to come out. It always amazes me to see what people create.

I think you also need adaptability. You need to be able to match the resource to the student. There is so much literature out there, but not everything appeals to everyone. You can get someone who likes more structured poems, or more narrative poems. Or someone who wants to write Gothic stories, not romantic ones, although sometimes they might be the same thing!

I think it’s important to find out what your students want to do. I had one student, from the Travelling Community and he lost his brother, and he wanted to write a poem for his brother. And he only came to a few sessions until he finished the poem. Then I met him one day and he said the poem had been laminated and it was on his brother’s grave, and all the family members had a copy of it. And it meant so much to him, being in prison – he couldn’t do anything else for his family than give this poem.  

So, you need to find out from each student: why do you want to write? who do you want to write to? And when it’s finished, you find that the emotion behind it is compelling.

CAP: So, you are open to using writing in different ways in your classes.

PB: Yes. Sometimes it’s about coming to the class to write a poem for Mother’s Day, or for a child’s birthday.  You can write a poem about anything. You see the immediate impact when someone realises that they can create something. The bigger picture is that it’s about communication.  It helps with keeping that bridge for prisoners with their families, because they are very isolated from them. 

CAP: Are there any additional factors which a Writer-in-Residence in a prison needs to take into account, any special qualities which they need? 

PB:  I think it’s about the prison educator archetype – you need to have a certain kind of personality to go into that work environment – I see it with my colleagues, the way they care about their students. They also provide a kind of mentoring role. 

You need to be open and to recognise the background the guys are coming from,  and it’s more than a hard luck story,  you know –  what I mean is that they might have dropped out of school early,  lost a parent through addictions,  not be able to read and write,  had siblings who have taken their own lives  – so  many difficult and challenging things have happened to many prisoners.

Something else that’s different about facilitating writing groups in the prison – when these groups come together in prison, they care about each other’s work; they want to hear about each other’s work.  You know, often in groups there can be someone who is dominant and only wants to read their own work.  I would rarely find that in the prison setting; it would be very rare.

There is a lot of peer sharing that goes on in the prison writing classes.  They like reading their work to each other in class.  Even some of them go off and read their stories to others in the prison yard or on the wings.  And they even come back with feedback from other prisoners on the wings; you’d be amazed. You could say there is a real sense of a writing community.


CAP: Yes, that’s evident in the 2017 of evaluation of PAF’s work, which includes a case study of your writing group. One of the participants says: “Writing gives a lot of people a lot of hope and a sense of belonging too.”

Here’s an extract from the report, where members of the group share their views about the benefits of writing:

“You develop patience, the ability to see something through to completion; you create something no one else can create”.

“It’s about having something you can share because everything else about you is negative negative negative”.

“Since I started to get the pressure out of my head with writing, my seizures stopped”.

“Writing is very therapeutic. Writing a poem or a story – it’s a gateway to confidence and to education. It opens the door to life – new life, plus the fact that you can progress – writing for the media, starting up your own thing on the outside, how-to guides”.

“Why writing works so well – everything in here is magnified – it takes on so much more intensity. Being here is so much more drilled down, and it takes on a bigger focus. It’s a release from the mundaneness of the whole situation”.

“It’s self-therapy”.

“I’ve heard a few people who are quite shy, and then bloom in the group”.

“Creative writing fills a void to allow mental health issues to be expressed”.

“For me it’s about expressing emotion – maybe not wanting to go through those emotions, but putting them into the voice of a character. It’s about perspective – I can see the pain and suffering – makes me force myself to go to a better place”.

“Two of us disagree about politics, so we write about things from different angles, and then we can understand what the other one thinks”.

“This class plays such an important part in my life – it gave me the will and inspiration to start writing properly again.”

“Writing is therapeutic. See, even reading (a poem) out to you, it lifts a sense of anguish”.

“I’m putting my voice on paper”.

“I started writing to have a voice. I felt that I was silenced for so long, to be able to say what I wanted in a constructive way …”

“A lot of motivation for writing about prison is about reform of yourself as well as the characters you write about in your stories. My story for which I won a Listowel award is about change – the change within a person from being inside – it’s reflective of a lot of feelings about being in prison and not getting lost in your feelings – it’s about the metamorphosis of a character”.

( Building Foundations for Change, 2017)

CAP: Pamela, one of the people quoted refers to the Listowel prison writing competition. Can you tell us what that is?

PB: This is the annual Listowel Writers’ in Prisons competition for poetry and short stories. Many writers from  Magilligan have won these awards.  In fact, when we first entered in 2014 we had one prize winner and that increases every year, in 2016, the writers from HMP Magilligan creative writing workshops gained three first prizes from Listowel, and in 2020 they won eight prizes which was the highest achievement over any other prison that submitted work. There are also the annual Koestler Arts Awards – this is a competition for artists of all disciplines in the criminal justice system in the UK. It’s prestigious, and many people from Magilligan have won Koestler Arts Awards as well. 

Part two of this interview is here

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