Poetry in prisons: how words can boost inmate wellbeing

Can poems help in the struggle against depression? Rachel Kelly, who uses her own experience to help prison inmates, says that words really can heal

Tell people you run poetry workshops in prisons and most are baffled. ‘Poetry? Prisons? How does that work?’

Rewind 17 years. That was when I first discovered poetry as an aid in my battle against depression. Poetry was literally a lifeline.

At first, I was only well enough to absorb one line from the Bible, itself full of poetry. My mother would sit by my bedside and say aloud a phrase from Corinthians that reminded me of my childhood: “My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

There was nothing else to which I could turn. My psychiatrist and his drugs hadn’t cured me. My mother and husband were as loving as they could be, but couldn’t reach me. I had ceased to be aware of them. They had faded in my consciousness to vague presences. But the words my mother recited were lifelines.

As I recovered I was able to absorb a verse, then a whole poem. I was drawn to poems such as George Herbert’s Love, with its message that we need a compassionate inner voice. Poems are free, have no side effects, keep me in the moment, stop me worrying about the future or regretting the past, and provide a positive narrative in my head.

“I began to share poems with others who found life hard. I was electrified that they found healing words helpful too”

I began to share poems with others who found life hard. I was electrified that they found healing words helpful too. Inspired, I decided to write a memoir about my recovery and the poems that most helped, as well as start running workshops.

Given the poor mental health of many prisoners, I jumped at an invitation two years ago to visit my local prison on National Poetry Day and share with inmates poems I thought they might find consoling. One prisoner had to hold back tears. He said a poem by Derek Walcott, Love after Love, was the first time he felt understood in twenty years.

Since then I have become a volunteer with the prison’s education department and visit as often as I can, usually every four weeks, working with a group of between ten and 15 men. I now also run my workshops for mental health charities such as MIND and Depression Alliance.

Typically, the workshops last an hour. We share around six or seven poems, with different prisoners volunteering to read. Sometimes we might look at a particular theme – diversity, or love – many inmates are keen to communicate as best they can with their families and loved ones – but we always tend to return to how poems can provide consolation.

For many, the last time they read aloud was as a child. It is wonderful to see these practices rediscovered in adulthood. Reading aloud has huge benefits. It helps you to digest the poems, opens your eyes to the musicality of them, and allows you time to put the text down and listen to others reading. It can also provide a confidence boost – the first time you volunteer to read something aloud can be a big step for those taking part.

For my charities, I run a four part series of workshops. Each session looks at the poetry and wisdom best suited to support the reader during a journey from dark to light, the last session working with poems to help with everyday life. The sessions also include handouts of the poems and prose extracts to discuss and take home.

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The first session includes a general introduction on poetry’s healing nature; Apollo after all was God of both poetry and medicine, and we look at the neuroscience behind poetry and how poems can help with mindfulness. We focus on understanding darkness and despair, with cathartic poems and descriptions of mental unrest.

The second session focuses on poems I feel give readers the strength to overcome desperation and the motivation to fight on. The third workshop is about re-engaging with the wider world, and the final session is about literature for everyday life: poems to deal with what Freud called ‘ordinary human unhappiness.’ Writers I use include Stevie Smith, George Herbert, Emily Dickinson and W.B. Yeats.

Reading the poems can work a bit like mindfulness, because sometimes concentration is required to unpack the meaning – this keeps everyone present in the moment. We all get a little respite from our worries.

Participants say they particularly enjoy the sense of community that is instantly created through the shared discovery of verse. Poems are often my companions when I feel at my most desperate and alone. Sharing poetry with others is one of the most effective ways to dispel isolation. As I leave the prison or the charity’s offices, I always feel cheered: we know helping others is one of the best ways of helping ourselves. My strength is indeed very slowly being made more perfect in weakness.

Rachel Kelly’s memoir, Black Rainbow: how words healed me – my journey through depression, is published in paperback by Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99, and is available for purchase on Amazon. For details of her next series of workshops throughout March, see The Idler and Cooltan arts. To learn more, watch this recent video about the workshops.

All author proceeds to SANE and United Response. Follow Rachel @rache_Kelly. For more information on Rachel’s #thewordsdoctor workshops visit www.blackrainbow.org.uk

Copies of Black Rainbow are just one of the many prizes that can be won in the Elevator Café competition, in partnership with Positive News. For more details and to enter, go to elevatorcafe.com/competition