Caspar Walsh takes us through a transformative weekend of writing and wilderness with five young prisoners
Write to Freedom is a pre and post release project for young people currently in the prison system. It was created as a result of founder Caspar Walsh’s experiences in crime, his rehabilitation and how writing and wilderness helped turn his life around. Successful students come out onto Dartmoor on a special licence where they are given the opportunity to be in wild nature, write about their past experiences and begin their journey into a new life.
We sit waiting for the rumble of the minibus on the beat up tarmac drive. Co-facilitator, Robin Bowman and I are experiencing a familiar nervousness. There’s a stillness on the site – it’s always the same this time on the Friday.
The food is unpacked, the rooms ready, the preparation done. Many days of work have led to this moment: hours in the prison looking for the students we reckon are ready to come out and work with us up here in this remote part of Dartmoor.
Our nervousness is rooted in previous bad experiences. Some weekends have involved extremely challenging, hard, thankless work. They always end on a successful note but how we get there is heavily dependant on the lads and their level of engagement. The group dynamic between the five young men coming will dictate how the weekend is run and how we work with them.
We hear the distant sound of the bus struggling up the steep hill and head out to greet them. Five wide-eyed lads get out along with the two prison education staff, Marcel and John. Marcel comes on every weekend and his long-term support and passion for the project lies at the heart of its success.
It’s easy to forget, to underestimate the impact of a simple walk on the moors on a sunlit day.
We take the lads through the daily routine of the house. I immediately notice a distinct lack of attitude; no skyward rolling eyeballs and groans of being in a ‘hippy house’. They listen intently, taking it all in and even finishing our sentences when it comes to what the point of recycling is, of reducing energy consumption and general respect for nature.
House briefing done we head straight up onto the high moor. As the light falls we sit on the soft ground and begin the first writing exercise, looking at aspects of their pasts that they want to let go of. The view across to Hound Tor and Hey Tor beyond is stunning and inspiring. Big grey clouds hang above us, slit wide open, backlit by the orange light of the setting sun.
We return to Heathercombe in the dusk light of a quickly cooling autumn evening. It’s clear the landscape is already having a positive impact on each lad. Some are running around, exploring, others more cautious but no less inquisitive or blown away by the beauty of where we are.
Tasty local food is cooked by staff and students and then we head out to the first fire of the weekend. Fire making, sitting round the warmth and light of the flames, sharing the experiences and writing of the day, being in the wild landscape of Dartmoor, is central to every weekend.
I’ve written a reflective rites of passage story which I read out around the fire each evening. The story links directly in to the tasks, wilderness education and challenges of the weekend. As it unfolds we re-enact with the lads, key elements of the challenges faced by its hero in the actual woods and moor. They listen intently to it, staring into the flames, identifying and seeing parts of their own difficult life experiences within its twists and turns.
The weather is stunning. The lads are up, making breakfast and sitting out on the decking. The heat of the sun is already intense and clearly welcome – although the insects that come with it much less so!
We walk into the valley between Hey Tor and Hound Tor, beyond the well-preserved medieval village to a hidden lake where we swim and wake ourselves up in its cold, smooth waters. One lad swims with me and Robin, the rest are content to watch and relax.
The freedom writers have spent many hours, weeks months and sometimes years in a tiny, soulless cell, waiting for the doors to be unlocked. It’s easy to forget, to underestimate the impact of a simple walk on the moors on a sunlit day. Whatever the nature of their crimes, the young men who come on these weekends are close to release and have shown highly positive signs of rehabilitation from the crimes they’ve committed. Being in wild nature with male staff who have followed a similar path is an important step on their journey. We give them what is so often absent in their lives – ongoing support and respect.
The next key writing exercise involves them splitting up, finding a ‘sit spot’, remaining in silence and when they are ready, to simply write what they see, hear, feel and sense around and inside them. What is brought back to the fire that night is nothing short of pure and gifted poetry borne from the observations of their surroundings and how it makes them feel about themselves.
The final morning arrives. Everyone pulls together, packing and cleaning up the site. There has been a solid and lasting connection made with each of the lads. The rites of passage story has had a real impact.
The years of work that have gone into building the weekends are clearly paying off. Everyone leaves feeling positive, upbeat and with a tangible sense of hope. Robin and I are sorry to say goodbye. Maybe we’ll see them again, post release for the soon to begin year-long course. The mini bus judders up the hill, Marcel at the wheel, the lads cheering and waving as they disappear back down the track. I head home feeling great, knowing another weekend is complete, a job well done. It’s hardly a job, I love this work.